It’s been almost three years to the day that we learned what is now the Celebration Bowl was in the works. It was almost immediately a love-hate situation. Fans of the SWAC, by-in-large, loved it. Many fans in the MEAC were skeptical at best, but just as many hated the idea.
The difference can be summed up simply in one word: Playoffs.
You see, after years of building anticipation around games like the Magic City Classic and Bayou Classic, the SWAC decided to forgo the playoffs and make money on its own championship game back in 1999.
The MEAC continued to take a more conventional route, sending its champion to the playoffs every season. And they lost every game from 2000 through 2014. Sometimes the margin was big, sometimes it was one that got away late. But either way the conference continued to come up short year after year.
So along comes the Celebration Bowl, a game created by ESPN Events and marketed by the 100 Black Men of Atlanta. A game that promised a million-dollar payout to each conference as well as the exposure of a bowl game on network television, something the FCS Playoffs couldn’t do.
Still, when the first Celebration Bowl rolled around in 2015, some MEAC fans weren’t sure whether or not it was a good thing for the conference. Then North Carolina A&Tand Alcorn State got all kinds of exposure as Tarik Cohen rushed for nearly 300 yards and his team came away with a win that wasn’t sealed until the final minutes.
Fast forward a year, Grambling State held off a determined North Carolina Central team in a game with an ending that no-one could have predicted.
As we prepare for the third annual game today, the Celebration Bowl continues to gain momentum among fans, players and administrators. Teams that have participated have seen their enrollments increase and the programs get more exposure than any FCS team participating in the playoffs.
This year’s game has a big stage in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the spaceship of a building that the Atlanta Falcons call home. Along with that shiny new building has come rising costs, which threaten to potentially hurt in-game attendance. But, then again, what Benz do you know that comes cheap.
As someone who was initially on the fence about the MEAC giving up its playoff bid, I can comfortably say it was for the best. No more ending the season on a sour note. Even the team that loses at the Celebration Bowl still wins when it comes to player experience and national school exposure. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious how A&T would do in the playoffs, but the reward of the Celebration Bowl is greater than the risk for pretty much every HBCU right now.
Whatever the outcome of Saturday’s game, it looks like The Celebration Bowl was the right idea. Both A&T and Grambling State are back in the game for their second time, both hoping to take home the big prize in the form of an HBCU national championship. If this game lives up to the hype, we could all be in for a treat, proving that the Celebration Bowl is here to stay.