MikeCheck: Birmingham's reinvestment in Magic City showdown a nod to HBCU's ‘Classic’ success
MEMPHIS – Alabama State coach Donald Hill-Eley emerged on the losing end of his team’s most recent game, but he knows a truly winning formula when he sees one.
“It’s always consistent,” Hill-Eley said. “It’s the last weekend in October. The date never changes, the venue never changes, so people get an opportunity to plan and make their arrangements each year. Some people are already making their arrangements for next year. So, whenever you have consistency in the time and the consistency in the place, that promotes a great crowd and good atmosphere.”
Hill-Eley’s rationale could easily explain what goes into executing a well-designed play on the field during any given weekend of Southwestern Athletic Conference football action. But on this occasion, the second-year Hornets coach was breaking down the Xs and Os behind what keeps the Magic City Classic at the forefront of the most successful “Classic” weekends on the Black College football landscape.
That status apparently will be the case for years to come.
It’s the last weekend in October. The date never changes, the venue never changes, so people get an opportunity to plan and make their arrangements each year. Some people are already making their arrangements for next year. So, whenever you have consistency in the time and the consistency in the place, that promotes a great crowd and good atmosphere.Donald Hill-Eley
Even before last Saturday’s matchup between Alabama State and Alabama A&M drew another blockbuster crowd to Legion Field, the city of Birmingham and administrators from both schools had already quadrupled down on their investment in the annual rivalry’s long-term success.
The Birmingham Business Journal reported last week that city officials and administrators have agreed on a new four-year contract worth nearly $3 million that will keep the McDonald’s Magic City Classic in Birmingham and at Legion Field through 2022. Each school reportedly received a $212,500 guarantee for last Saturday’s game, which Alabama A&M won 27-10 in the final matchup under the current expiring contract.
In its 77th year, the Magic City Classic drew 65,906 fans to Legion Field on Saturday, and likely double that number of patrons to the city for a lucrative weekend of parties, concerts, seminars and other events. It was the highest attendance for an HBCU game this season and an increase over the 61,221 who showed up at last year’s game.
It’s firmly one of the top-five HBCU annual Classics, joining September’s Southern Heritage Classic in Memphis (Tennessee State-Jackson State), October’s State Fair Classic in Dallas (Grambling-Prairie View) and November’s Florida Classic in Orlando (Florida A&M-Bethune-Cookman) and Bayou Classic in New Orleans (Grambling-Southern). Last season, those five Classics drew a combined attendance of 278,225.
According to the Birmingham Business Journal’s report, the Alabama A&M-Alabama State game ranks among the largest annual events in the city and has a multimillion-dollar economic impact. Birmingham has embraced the culture of HBCU football at a time when the city and region are experiencing a major resurgence in sports development.
Outside, it looked like it was a foggy day because of all of the tailgate smoke. You just see A&M and Hornets fans everywhere. They’d been there all week (and) they started tailgating Tuesday. It was the biggest game I’ve coached in, been around or have been a part of.Connell Maynor
In addition to massive campaigns that resurrected the University of Alabama-Birmingham’s football program and other campus athletic facilities, the city opened a $64 million downtown baseball stadium for its minor league team a few years ago. A new football stadium is also reportedly in the works for 2021.
Plus, the NBA is strengthening connections with Birmingham, which continued with an Oct. 2 preseason game between the Grizzlies and Rockets. And the New Orleans Pelicans recently announced plans to launch their NBA G League affiliate franchise in the city.
But football remains king in the Birmingham region at every level, from the Alabama-Auburn rivalry that divides and unites the state, to the Alabama A&M-Alabama State showdown that livens the party. Based on the scene Alabama A&M first-year coach Connell Maynor described from his first experience, it’s easy to see why all sides eagerly recommitted long-term to the Magic City Classic. The payout to each school increases annually and nearly doubles by the end of the new contract, from this year’s guarantee to $400,000 for the 2022 game.
“You’ve got 65,000 people in the stadium, and then walking around the field, you had another six rows deep of fans just walking around the bottom,” Maynor said. “It was everything everybody said it would be. It was 65,000 and it looked like 65,000. Outside, it looked like it was a foggy day because of all of the tailgate smoke. You just see A&M and Hornets fans everywhere. They’d been there all week (and) they started tailgating Tuesday. It was the biggest game I’ve coached in, been around or have been a part of.”
And it isn’t going anywhere.
“It’s one of those situations where, man, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Hill Eley said. “It becomes a homecoming of sorts between the two schools at that venue. A lot of people we won’t see at our homecomings (on campus), we’ll see there at Magic City. So, it’s good to know that it will continue.”
MikeCheck HBCU Power Poll 8.0
1. Florida A&M (6-2):
Coached by former Clemson quarterback Willie Simmons, the Rattlers simply keep getting better every week. Riding a five-game winning streak, FAMU has outscored opponents 163-51 during that span and can clinch at least a share of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title this week. It’s already assured to be the team’s first winning season since 2011.
Last week’s ranking: 1
Up next: Saturday at Howard (3-4)
2. Alcorn State (7-2):
The Braves have been spoiling opponents’ homecoming weekends on a regular basis this season. Prairie View was the third victim of a party crashing defense in the Braves’ 14-point road win last week. In firm control of their own SWAC destiny, the Braves next step out of conference play for a shot to upset a struggling independent FBS foe on the road.
Last week’s ranking: 2
Up next: Saturday at New Mexico St. (2-7)
3. North Carolina A&T (6-2):
Forget football this week. No one does Homecoming Week in the HBCU ranks quite like the Aggies. The annual G.H.O.E. (Greatest Homecoming On Earth), an eight-day celebration, features concert headliners Babyface, Cardi B, 2 Chainz and Kirk Franklin for separate events, plus parades and more leading into Saturday’s gridiron action.
Last week’s ranking: 3
Up next: Saturday vs Norfolk State (3-4)
4. Southern University (5-3):
The surging Jaguars scored touchdowns on a pass, a run, a kickoff return and a strip sack converted into a score in last week’s blowout home win over Jackson State. Southern played so well, it knocked coach Tony Hughes out of a job, as he and JSU parted ways the next day. The Jaguars have won three straight SWAC games by a combined 100-14 score.
Last week’s ranking: Unranked
Up Next: Bye
5. Albany State (6-3):
The Rams have won six straight, clinched the SIAC East division title and secured a spot in the Nov. 3 conference championship. They are 5-0 in league play, and their early loss to Tuskegee didn’t count in the SIAC standings. Last week’s 38-0 win at Benedict was Albany State’s first shutout win since 2015, which also was the year it last reached the SIAC title game.
Last week’s ranking: Unranked
Up Next: Saturday vs Ft. Valley State (2-7)
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