Southern University ended a three-game slide against archrival Grambling State University in last week’s Bayou Classic with a 38-28 win over the Tigers. The announced attendance crowd for the annual in-state clash: more than 67,800 fans in town for game and events that some feared would lose traffic because of a home game between the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons.
In the years defined as the post-Hurricane Katrina era, the Bayou Classic has been defined more by how many people paid for tickets and watched the game in the Mercedes Benz Superdome as it has been by its actual outcome and impact on the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s championship picture. Media outlets in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Grambling have always intentionally marketed and talked about the need for Jaguar and Tiger fans to come out to the support the game as a sign of interest for broadcast partners, sponsors, and businesses in New Orleans to continue to believe in the Bayou Classic as a lucrative sports and entertainment brand.
It is probably time we stop putting that unfair burden on school leaders, the city, and fans to prove that the most visible HBCU football brand in the nation should be primarily measured by an over/under mark of 65,000 fans in seats. Grambling and Southern do a lot to drive their respective local economies and New Orleans’ financial goals through athletics, whether 65,000 people elect to spend Thanksgiving weekend in New Orleans or not.
In a tourism-driven city and a state cash-strapped by every definition of finance, the Bayou Classic remains an anticipated, money-making venture for everyone with a stake in the game being played; especially in years when both SU and GSU are competitive for a spot in the SWAC championship game.
If only 45,000 fans attended the game, that is still a larger gathering than most industrial conferences the city hosts, most one-day events the city produces, and is a nationally televised product giving national airtime to New Orleans and Bayou Classic partners. Grambling and Southern are still football royalty in Louisiana and Southeastern United States, which is more than can be said for Louisiana State University; with which its bigger brand and fan base also comes with national coverage on its controversies, letdowns, and annual and inevitable losses to its SEC big brother, the University of Alabama.
No one considers Iron Bowl attendance statistics between Alabama and Auburn, even in those years when Auburn is not a worthy adversary. No one thinks about attendance figures for Stanford-UCLA when neither program is good enough for BCS playoff consideration. And no one would ever think to ask; the fact that the rivalries exist and make money is bigger than how much money they make or how many people contribute to the windfall every year.
We are allowing BCS culture and jealousy from non-black and non-HBCU media and business entities to apply unreasonable pressure to our sports products, which in turn dictates how much we can leverage in corporate sponsorship and fan attitudes towards the game. Think about what the real ask is from the HBCU community to make this game lucrative in the eyes of people outside of our universe: we are asking for affluent families from New Orleans, Dallas, Houston, Nashville and Atlanta to carry the weight of driving up Bayou Classic attendance numbers, and for Louisianans and fly-ins to fill in every other seat that rich black folks can’t buy up.
We’re asking them to secure hotel room nights, eat, enjoy the nightlife, and buy items all in the days leading up to Thanksgiving and just weeks away from Christmas. And then we’re asking them to consider doing it all over again in Atlanta when the Bayou Classic winner is likely to appear in the ESPN-created and produced Celebration Bowl.
For several years now, black folks have delivered on the expectation that the Bayou Classic should draw more than 65,000 fans. But the truth is that black people and black money aren’t moving like that in lean economic times in one of the financially leanest parts of the United States – and we shouldn’t allow this unreasonable measurement of fan loyalty and market value to define one of our strongest sports products anymore.
For New Orleans, the State of Louisiana and college football at large, the Bayou Classic is a success because it continues to be played on one of the biggest stages in the sports world; not because 65,000 people can afford to be there. If only 45-50,000 fans can make the game, it is still a financial success. We should stop allowing everyone else who isn’t a part of our game and those who don’t take the time to grasp its economic and social value to tell us how the Bayou Classic triumphs or fails beyond its final score.