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Pigskin Payday

Pigskin Payday
For many HBCU athletic departments, the annual
football classics keep their sports programs afloat.
By Add Seymour Jr.

Southern University Athletic Director Greg LaFleur was smiling long before his Jaguars defeated rival Grambling State University in the State Farm Bayou Classic on Thanksgiving weekend.

It wasn’t the prospect of winning the game that had him giddy. It was the financial windfall his athletic department was about to get out of the game.

“It’s a huge asset to our department,” LaFleur says. “For Division I-AA schools like us, it is the biggest game you have. There’s no other way you can generate that kind of revenue.”

With their huge corporate sponsors, big profits and wide visibility, the classics are the financial lynchpin for many HBCU athletic departments.

Baton Rouge, La.-based Southern, which has a $7 million budget for its 18-sport athletic department, is a prime example. Student fees and ticket revenues account for about two-thirds of the university’s athletic income. The rest comes from one game, the Bayou Classic.

“That game is the reason we can support our other sports,” LaFleur says.

And it’s not just the classics that are bringing in big bucks.

In November and December, smaller schools, including HBCUs, often travel to face the nation’s basketball powerhouses in what are called guarantee games. It’s a guaranteed payday for the small school, but it usually comes with a guaranteed beating on the court. The first few weeks of the college football season also generally feature some eyebrow-raising matchups, as top-ranked teams tune up and tee off on overmatched competition.

Florida A&M University’s football team, for example, was dismantled 51-10 by the University of Miami Hurricanes earlier this season.

While a 40-point drubbing may be embarrassing for the small schools, the six-figure payday can ease the hurt. And even with the loss, national exposure is good for recruiting. But the guarantee games in basketball and football are few and far between for small programs. The classics, meanwhile, are played every year, usually in large cities and against traditional rivals. Those games bring in the kind of money that can keep an HBCU’s athletic department afloat.

The Money Game
Like most other collegiate athletic programs, HBCU athletic departments struggle to finish in the black financially each year. Aside from some perennial college football powerhouses like the University of Florida, the University of Georgia, The Ohio State University and the University of Tennessee, most athletic departments barely break even each year. The margin for error is almost always narrow, especially at small schools. And because a home game may draw 20,000 people or less, it’s often a wise move to trade it for a classic date, which comes with guaranteed money and the chance to play in front of 70,000 fans or more.

“That’s the pressure we’re under as athletic directors,” says Troy Mathieu, who holds the position at Grambling. “Keeping the revenue streams not only sustaining what we have, but also growing our departments.”

Among the nation’s oldest classics is the annual Morehouse-‘Skegee Classic in Columbus, Ga., between Morehouse College and Tuskegee University. The game, which has been played every year since 1902, has been based in Columbus for the past 71 years. But while that game may be among the oldest, another Black college classic has emerged as the best known.

It was Grambling’s legendary sports information director, the late Collie Nicholson, who came up with the idea to have Grambling play its in-state rival, Southern, each year on neutral ground. That game, the Bayou Classic, is played every Thanksgiving weekend in New Orleans and broadcast to a nationwide audience, bringing the Black college football experience, with its intense rivalries and high-stepping bands, into mainstream America.

Among the more successful annual events is the Southern Heritage Classic between Tennessee State University and its rival, Jackson State University. TSU also battles Florida A&M each year in the 100 Black Men Classic in Atlanta. FAMU, meanwhile, squares off against Bethune-Cookman College in the Walt Disney World Florida Classic. The Coca-Cola Circle City Classic in Indianapolis brings in various teams each year and draws as many as 150,000 visitors to the city Many of the classics have evolved into four- and five-day events. Instead of simply a Saturday football game, some classics now include golf tournaments, parades, concerts and job fairs.

“Over the years, the classics have been a great financial windfall for our universities,” says Mathieu. “But just as important as the revenue piece, it takes our universities into other parts of the country and serves as a recruiting tool for not only athletics, but our universities as a whole.”

While the classic model has been a financial boon for many of the universities, the approach has also led to a slew of failures. In 2001, the Silver Dollar Classic between Grambling and Tennessee State promised to bring HBCU football out West. Held in Las Vegas, that game was a success, but following installments were mired in bad management, internal squabbles and low attendance. The game moved to Los Angeles this season, but the matchup between Alcorn State University and Morehouse also failed to draw large numbers of fans.

Larger schools in the nation’s big-time conferences, such as the
Big 12, the Big Ten, the Pacific 10 and the Southeastern Conference, have their own problems. Unlike HBCUs with lucrative classics, these larger schools aren’t necessarily getting rich by earning trips to big postseason bowl games.

The Big Ten’s Ohio State Buckeyes and the SEC’s Florida Gators will each receive $17 million to play in the Tostitos BCS National Championship game on Jan. 8. But no matter who wins, the schools will never see much of that money. Instead, it’s split among all of the  teams in their respective conferences. Bowl-bound schools also generally have to pay their own travel and housing costs for the team and the support staff — which can easily reach nearly $1 million.

Plus, schools have to sell a minimum number of tickets to the
bowl games. If not, they end up eating that money.

The nation’s top teams earn invitations to the high-profit Bowl Championship Series games, each of which pays $17 million per school. But other bowl games, like the Bowl and the Insight Bowl, offer a significantly smaller payday. The Bowl — which features the University of South Florida Bulls and the East Carolina University Pirates this year — brings in the lowest amount at $300,000 per team. On average, a trip to a bowl game will bring in about $1 million for each team.

LaFleur, who has been an associate AD at Louisiana State University — an SEC school that’s heading towards a $17 million payday in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3 — remembers those days.

“We’d make nearly $3 million a game at LSU,” he says. “You do the math. But there’s only 20 schools that operate like that. The rest
are like Southern. Most [athletic department programs] are not self-sustaining.”

The major conferences also bring in millions by selling the rights to air their games to television stations like ABC and ESPN.  The profits from those contracts are also split among the conference teams. The University of Notre Dame, which doesn’t belong to a football conference, has an exclusive national contract with NBC to televise at least six of the Fighting Irish’s home games, a contract worth a reported $10 million annually. Each year, some of that money goes towards academic scholarships, though the bulk goes to the athletic department.

Second-tier conferences like the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West Conference and the Western Athletic Association can rarely get a piece of those multimillion-dollar contracts. Some will appear on television, but often only when they play a team from one of the power conferences. Most are scrounging to find other ways to raise money for their athletic programs.

In light of the perennial funding crunch for athletic departments, classics could well be the best cure for ailing HBCU programs.

Those games that are successful, like the Bayou Classic, help to ensure that all of a school’s sports programs will continue that year.

“Most people don’t realize that there is not a whole lot of money made in athletics,” LaFleur says. “We just try to maintain.”

Black Coaches Heading Division I-A Football Teams

By Frank J. Matthews

NCAA Division I-A football is made up of 119 teams. Combined, these teams have approximately 9,500 players, of whom 57 percent are African-American, according to NCAA data. But only six of the 119 head coaches are Black. Turner Gill of the University of Buffalo and Ron Prince of Kansas State University are completing their first seasons at the helm, and the University of Miami’s Randy Shannon will make his head coaching debut in 2007. Prince will lead his Wildcats to the Texas Bowl against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights on Dec. 28. Meanwhile, Karl Dorrell’s UCLA Bruins battled the Florida State University Seminoles on Dec. 27
in the Emerald Bowl. (pictured, Sylvester Croom)

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