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Rivalries Getting In the Way Of The MEAC/SWAC Challenge
A reporter for the Daytona Beach News-Journal talks about Bethune Cookman and the (now) more limited number of schools to play in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge - now in Bethune-Cookman’s home turf of Orlando.
For a couple of days late last month, it looked like Bethune-Cookman’s football team would be participating in two major events in Orlando next season. But the presidents of B-CU and Florida A&M quickly ended that speculation.
On Feb. 26, ESPN Regional Television announced its MEAC/SWAC Challenge game will move from Birmingham, Ala., to Orlando’s Florida Citrus Bowl for at least next season. The game will be played Aug. 31, which is Sunday of the Labor Day weekend.
The game’s participants were widely reported to be B-CU of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and Jackson State of the Southwestern Athletic Conference. With Jacksonville University buying out of its game with B-CU on Aug. 30, the Wildcats had an opening on their schedule, but discussions concerning the matchup were still in the preliminary stages, B-CU athletics director Lynn Thompson said.
Those discussions had to start anew after March 1 when the presidents of B-CU and FAMU removed their teams for consideration from the MEAC/SWAC Challenge in Orlando because it could “encroach” on the Florida Classic, a rivalry game between that Rattlers and Wildcats that attracts 60-70,00 fans to the Citrus Bowl each November.
Two days after the ESPN announced the Challenge was moving to Orlando, its sister company, Walt Disney World, said it was pulling out as title sponsor of the Florida Classic. Apparently concerned Disney World would instead become a sponsor of the MEAC/SWAC game, the two Florida MEAC schools said they would each not play in any other games in Orlando.
“This Classic is more than a game. It is a family reunion that has evolved into the greatest competition between two historic universities in the state of Florida,” the school presidents said in their joint statement.
“While Walt Disney World has decided to discontinue their relationship with the Classic as title sponsor, we hope that neither Walt Disney World, or any other organization will encroach on the Florida Classic brand by bringing other (historically black college and university) teams into Orlando to replicate, or to engage in activities that would diminish the Florida Classic.”
Steve Hogan, executive director of Florida Citrus Sports, which manages the Florida Classic, said in the March 1 release that after Walt Disney World ended its title sponsorship his office received “numerous” calls from major Fortune 500 companies eager to discuss the vacant title sponsorship.
While MEAC officials did not return phone calls from The News-Journal, SWAC commissioner Duer Sharp said the decision by FAMU and B-CU was understandable, and they are not the only schools who have removed themselves from consideration for the Labor Day game pitting HBCU’s top conferences.
“(The Florida Classic) has a tremendous fan following,” Sharp said. “Playing twice in Orlando could have a negative impact on attendance (on the Classic).
“Texas Southern and Prairie View A&M play in a Labor Day Classic, so they’ll never play in a MEAC-SWAC Challenge either. And again, that’s a rivalry game with a lot of tradition,” Sharp said.
The MEAC/SWAC Challenge was played in Birmingham during its first three years, and Sharp acknowledged that attendance had been disappointing. FAMU played in the game last year, losing to Southern 33-27 before 30,106 fans.
The first two games had smaller crowds – 18,452 in 2005 when South Carolina State beat Alabama State, and 19,175 when Hampton defeated Grambling State 27-26 in overtime.
Sharp said it was decided in early discussions the Challenge would be played in SWAC territory for three years followed by three years in MEAC territory. ESPN Regional Television, which holds all the rights to the Challenge, has not confirmed whether the game would be played in Orlando past this year.
“I know the tradition (of the Florida Classic),” Sharp said. “And it’s difficult to get sponsorship these days. I can see what (B-CU and FAMU) are saying, but I think ESPN has done a great job supporting both conferences, and I don’t think they would do something that would hurt another game to help their own.”
Thompson said that in 10 years of sponsorship, Disney World has contributed at least $2.7 million to the Florida Classic.
“We wanted to protect our sole interest in Orlando,” Thompson said of the school presidents’ announcement. “We’re trying to protect the brand name we’ve carefully built over the years. The Florida Classic has become nationally recognized, and we don’t want to lose that.”
OF NOTE: Had the Wildcats decided to accept an invitation the Challenge next season, they would have had a SWAC team on their schedule two weeks in a row. B-CU will host Alabama State on Sept. 6, although the game turned out to be a surprise to Alabama State administrators.
Alabama State interim athletics director Ron Dickerson was not aware of the game until receiving a “reminder” from B-CU’s Thompson. By then Dickerson had already scheduled a game against Jackson State on that date.
Alabama State ended up paying Jackson State $10,000 to move their game. A buyout with B-CU would have cost Alabama State $50,000.
The Wildcats have 11 games on their schedule for next season including nine MEAC games and a non-conference contest with Savannah State. Thompson said the ‘Cats are discussing the possibility of adding a 12th game.
Fla. Classic faces trouble
By BRENT WORONOFF, Daytona Beach News-Journal