This year marks the end of an era in college football and leaves another public relations nightmare for the African-American national pastime. When the Southwestern Athletic Conference chose to “suspend” its conference football championship game and send its regular season champion to the Celebration Bowl, it was a damaging blow to HBCU football that will be hard to overcome.
As Grambling and Alcorn State meet for the third straight year for the SWAC title it marks the end of the championship game era in the conference. A carat that made pulling out of the FCS playoffs worthwhile is gone. The wonderful weekend celebration of one of America’s great college football legacies is no more. Their credibility as an athletic conference has also taken a self-inflicted blindside hit.
Revisit moments from the 2015 Toyota SWAC Football Championship Experience that took place Dec 5, 2015 in Houston, Texas at NRG Stadium.
That SWAC Commissioner Duer Sharp chose to forsake what is in the best interest of his conference for the greater good of another game is preposterous. The SWAC Championship game was the crown jewel for players and fans of the most attended FCS conference in the country. It was the only FCS conference championship game with national TV and radio distribution and was a tremendous marketing tool for SWAC and HBCU football. For SWAC culture, it was more important than the FCS Playoffs.
The move from Birmingham to Houston was a stroke of genius. After 10 years in historic yet outdated Legion Field, playing at NRG Stadium in the number four media market set the conference apart from its peers. It was a recruiting tool when trying to convince a program-changing prospect to play SWAC football after high school graduation or if he decided to transfer. This venue – home of the NFL’s Houston Texans – put the conference on its own stage like no other. It was a major college moment for the SWAC during the FCS Playoffs on what has affectionately become known as Championship Saturday.
Sharp’s model worked to perfection in 2013 when despite an ice storm, fans of Southern and Jackson State wouldn’t let weather alter their weekend plans. To create a better “fan experience”, Sharp added post-game entertainment to the price of tickets. All 10 SWAC schools sent their bands for a post-game battle and the building was more electric than it was for the double-overtime thriller won by the Jaguars.
When 38,985 fans braved the elements in a sunbelt state for an HBCU FCS conference championship game it officially became an event. The mission had been accomplished. This was another destination, even if your team wasn’t playing, to be in December like the other classic games that SWAC teams play throughout the regular season.
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By 2014, the game had gone Big-Time and the its potential seemed unlimited. In addition to Alcorn State beating Southern for its first SWAC title ever, Frankie Beverly and Maze was the post-game show. It was another moment that put the SWAC Football Championship Game in the rarefied air of the Bayou Classic or the CIAA Tournament. You keep the crowd after halftime and then party after the game.
Then R. Kelly happened, and things were never the same. Kells was the scheduled post-game entertainment and Houston was ready to see his performance more than the first championship game matchup between Alcorn State and Grambling in 2015. The 40,352 fans who paid watched the Braves 49-21 victory and it was the first time there had ever been a repeat champion in the history of the game. However, the show was cancelled because of Kelly’s last minute “illness”, which left a bad taste in the mouth of locals.
Without the draw of a post-game event, the game saw a big drop in attendance last year. Weather was an important factor however, as torrential downpours hampered travelers and events. Almost 25,000 fans watched as Grambling gained revenge on Alcorn with a 27-20 win to take the Robinson Trophy back home.
Most bowl games or classics are shooting for that mark of 30,000 attendees for strategic marketing purposes, so all things considered it wasn’t tragic. There was still more upside to make Houston work – especially for the football championship – than to suspend the game indefinitely.
However, the tragedy is wasting the time and effort that went into building the game into the event it had become. The SWAC is leaving opportunities in Houston that may not present themselves again. There are many reasons to continue playing this that make dollars and sense.
They are leaving a city which has scores of companies to draw from as potential sponsors. With two conference teams geographically located in the general vicinity, there was always the potential to create a local buzz as well. The city offered the conference a chance to move from Birmingham much like the CIAA moving its offices to Charlotte, home of its signature event, to grab its piece of the civic pie but apparently that idea died in committee.
A championship game is the national marketing tool for the conference and every school under its umbrella. Three hours of free national television advertising is priceless during the holidays for a conference whose football brand helps each of its schools brand grow exponentially. Athletics is the best marketing tool any university uses to advance its brand and the SWAC has closed the door.
The shortsighted decision will have devastating long term effects on the conference. For the NCAA to sanction the game, the SWAC had to officially give up its bid to the FCS Playoffs, which is probably gone forever. It will dissolve the competitive two division format that made for interesting late-season games into November. The SWAC’s divisional format was the college football equivalent to Major League Baseball’s wild card race. More teams with a chance to compete means more butts in seats later in the season.
GFN Week 12 - The SWAC Championship. This is a video recap of the Grambling State University Tigers vs the Alcorn State Braves football game on December December 3, 2016 at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas for the Southwestern Athletic Conference Football Championship. Grambling Football News is hosted by Dameon Runnels.
To kill the SWAC Football Championship game after a 15-year run for a game that remains in its infancy like the Celebration Bowl smacks the visionary leadership who brought the game to fruition like a Deacon Jones head slap.
It appears that Sharp’s final meaningful act as SWAC Commissioner will be pulling the plug on the conference’s crowning jewel. This is not the legacy that he should be remembered for. Black College football shouldn’t be trading events so that others will survive.