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Bayou Classic Gets Bigger, Richer

Bayou Classic Gets Bigger, Richer
Go-it-alone strategy puts more than a little sugar in Grambling’s and Southern’s bowls

By Scott Dyer
NEW ORLEANS — The annual Bayou Classic football game between Louisiana’s two major historically Black universities has built a reputation over the past 26 years as the biggest Black happening in America.
Each year on the weekend after Thanksgiving, thousands swamp this city’s French Quarter for the annual game between arch rivals Southern University and Grambling State University.
And in recent years, the Bayou Classic weekend has expanded to include events like the Battle of the Bands. On the eve before the game, the school’s two marching bands stage their own competition in which they take turns strutting their musical prowess on genres that range from traditional marching music to jazz and even rap.
Other events include a massive job fair, beauty pageant featuring contestants from the two schools and concerts that this year featured Gladys Knight, the Ohio Players and others.
In all, the Bayou Classic is estimated to have a $50 million economic impact for the city of New Orleans on a weekend that otherwise might be the slowest of the year in terms of tourism. By contrast, the economic impact of the NCAA’s Football Div. I-A Sugar Bowl on the city is approximately $135 million, according to Greg Blackwell, the Sugar Bowl’s director of communications. Of course, that takes place on New Year’s Day. And when the city hosted the National Football League’s Super Bowl Championship in 1990, the economic impact on the Big Easy was $237.7 million, according to the report Superdome’s 15-Year Impact on Louisiana, 1975-1990, authored by Dr. Timothy P. Ryan of the University of New Orleans. The Super Bowl, however, is a two-week event where the teams involved, the press and the fans arrive in town as much as 14 days before the actual contest.
Despite the financial boost to the city, fans from both schools have complained for years about price gouging by hotels during the big weekend.
Designated as one of New Orleans “special events,” the Bayou Classic is placed in the same category as the Sugar Bowl and Mardi Gras and the Super Bowl, which has been hosted by New Orleans a record eight times, as far as the hospitality industry is concerned.
That translates into dramatic price hikes for lodging that weekend.
For example, Raymond Downs, Southern University vice chancellor for student affairs, noted that his hotel room cost $89 on Thanksgiving night, but soared to $159 per night when the Bayou Classic weekend officially began the following day.
The high prices have prompted the Southern University Board of Supervisors to threaten on several occasions to look into the possibility of moving the Bayou Classic to other locations like Houston or Atlanta. But officials from both schools conceded that a change of venue would alter the flavor of the event.
For their part, Southern and Grambling have tried to hold the line on ticket prices for the big game, which fills the Louisiana Superdome every year. Tickets prices currently range from $15 to $30, and officials want to keep them that way to assure access for all fans, regardless of their economic background.
‘’You got some bowl games that don’t pay the amount of the money that we get off of this,” says Ralph Slaughter, the Southern University system vice president for administration and management. The gate alone generated $1.6 million this year, Slaughter said.
At the Sugar Bowl, ticket prices range from $85 to $125, according to Blackwell.
 The Bayou Classic also has some astronomical expenses. Slaughter said, noting that the rental of the Superdome with security-related expenses totaled nearly $350,000 this year.
But even after the cost of lodging and meals for the two football teams, each school figures to receive a net about $600,000 apiece from ticket sales alone. Teams that partipate in the Sugar Bowl will receive a total payout of $11-$13million from all activities surrounding the game, Blackwell says.
Southern University plans to use at least $100,000 of that money for scholarships, with the remainder going to the athletic program where is supports not only the football team, but also other sports. And a portion of the revenues are being set aside to expand the stadium on Southern University’s campus and to build an adjacent parking garage.
Grambling State President Steve Favors said a major portion of his school’s revenues will go for non-athletic scholarships, which the school desperately needs for its dwindling out-of-state student population. Nearly half of Grambling’s student body has traditionally come from outside Louisiana, but the percentage of out-of-state students has plummeted to 40 percent over the past four years due to pressure by the Louisiana Legislature to raise out-of-state tuition to the regional average. As a result, out-of-state students currently pay about twice as much in out-of-state fees as they pay in regular tuition.
Southern University also has seen a decrease in out-of-state tuition as a result of the fee hikes, with its percentage of out-of-state students dropping from about 23 percent to about 15 percent in the past four years.
Favors says that in addition to generating money for scholarships, the nationally televised Bayou Classic serves as an ‘’super recruiting tool. … The Bayou Classic is aired across the country, prospective students have an opportunity to see the game and we have an opportunity to advertise.”
The Bayou Classic is Grambling’s biggest payday of the year for the athletic program, but it also represents a “rallying point for the African American community,” Favors says.
In the past year, the two schools have begun to look at other ways to generate revenues from the game, Slaughter says.
In negotiating a new television contract with NBC this year, the schools took a new innovative approach that they hope will bolster television revenues from the game. Instead of selling the television rights to the game as they have in past years, the schools negotiated a new agreement in which they purchased a time from NBC for the game and then used a consultant to sell commercials.
Both schools were looking for a new approach, since they only cleared about $50,000 in television revenues from last year’s Bayou Classic, Slaughter says. Under the new three-year contract, the schools expect to clear at least $100,000 each in television revenues, and there’s a chance the revenues could go much higher.      
Slaughter adds that 30-second commercials for this years Bayou Classic sold for $25,000, and noted that some television analysts believe that future ads could sell as high as $40,000 apiece.
The key,  Slaughter says, is to get accurate ratings for the game that has become known as the biggest black happening in America. Slaughter said there’s some concern that the ratings may be skewed because relatively few African American homes are surveyed.
‘’We’re concerned that the ratings are not representative of what the true picture is,” Slaughter says.
Contributing to the ratings this year was one of the most exciting games in recent history. Grambling ran up a 31-10 halftime lead, only to have Southern roar back to win by a final score of 37-31.
Besides television revenues, the two historically Black universities are trying to increase corporate sponsorships. This year alone, the schools recruited 11 new corporate sponsors — AT&T, the U. S. Marines, Delta Airlines, Cover Girl, the U.S. Army, Shell Oil, the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, Pontiac, L’eggs, Coors, and Tampax. They join previous sponsors DaimlerChrysler, Coca-Cola, Bellsouth, and American Airlines in paying from $50,000 to $300,000 to help sponsor the game.
In addition, Slaughter says State Farm pays $500,000 per year for the ‘title sponsorship’ — in effect, to have the game known the State Farm Bayou Classic.
Myron Lawson, an Alexandria-based State Farm agent who currently serves as chairman of the Southern University Board of Supervisors, says he’s proud to see his company get involved in the Bayou Classic.
‘’It gives State Farm a chance to show that it is concerned about the entire community — you couldn’t have gotten major corporations to invest in something like this years ago,” Lawson says.
Grambing’s Favors said while the Bayou Classic has made major strides this year in recruiting new corporate sponsors, there is still plenty of untapped potential in that area.
“For the sponsors, it is an attachment to Black America, and Black America looks very closely to see which companies support Black colleges and these types of events,” Favors says.
Slaughter saysthe corporate sponsorships were especially important this year because the provided the money need to ‘’buy” the television time from NBC for the Bayou Classic. The school’s had to put a minimum of $500,000 for the television time, he adds.
Meanwhile, Slaughter said the schools are looking at other ways to cash in on the Bayou Classic. For instance, the game had its own Internet Web site this year where fans could watch the game live on their computers.
‘’There’s some potential for extra revenue there, too, because you can sell merchandise on the Web and people can buy advertising,” Slaughter says.                 

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