An HBCU bowl game wins out over NCAA playoffs
Big-money payout is just one reason Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl benefits schools and conferences
The Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl this weekend in Atlanta is the first of 41 nationally televised bowl games, giving historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) some of the bowl-season spotlight and everything that comes with it.
The game features the champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), North Carolina A&T, and the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), Alcorn State, with each school receiving a $1 million payout for participating.
The Aggies are making their third trip to the Celebration Bowl, and last year’s trip capped an undefeated season. First-year head coach Sam Washington says the impact of the game isn’t just felt from a football standpoint for the school.
“The worth comes alone just in applications” for admission, said Washington, who was N.C. A&T’s defensive coordinator for seven years before becoming head coach. “We’re talking about tens of thousands, and then the quality of student those applications allow the university to choose from is crazy. Now it’s more competitive academically as well as athletically.”
Those applications brought 2,201 new students to N.C. A&T’s campus this year, and school officials acknowledge the Celebration Bowl as one of the factors allowing N.C. A&T to continue its reign as the largest HBCU in the country.
“Our growth in enrollment, academic quality and recognition is the result of a great many factors. The visibility that our participation in the Celebration Bowl is a contributor to that growth, and we’re pleased to be back in Atlanta this year for what we’re sure will be another great experience with lasting benefit to North Carolina A&T,” said Todd Simmons, N.C. A&T’s associate vice chancellor for university relations.
The only time N.C. A&T hasn’t benefited from the Celebration Bowl, which was created in 2015, is the one year the school didn’t play in the game. In 2016, North Carolina Central won the MEAC championship. N.C. A&T participated in the FCS playoffs, only to lose to Richmond 39-10 in the first round.
Its fate was like many MEAC teams before 2015. The conference would send its champion to the FCS playoffs, where their season usually ended with a first-round exit, usually by a lopsided score. The MEAC has now traded its automatic FCS playoff bid for the tie-in with the Celebration Bowl, which brings a huge payout and national exposure for its teams.
“People who have not known about our conferences know about us now simply because we’re the start of the bowl season and we’ve been on ABC, so the world is getting the opportunity to know us better and see our product,” said MEAC commissioner Dennis Thomas.
The SWAC, on the other hand, hasn’t had to deal with the FCS playoffs because its championship game comes after the playoffs have already started. SWAC schools such as Alcorn State still appreciate what the bowl game has done for their school and how it gives them a leg up on other FCS competition.
“You look at players coming out of high school these days, they want to be seen on TV, and you start to use that as a recruiting tool,” said Fred McNair, who’s in his third season as head coach for Alcorn State. “We get to go out and tell players that we’re SWAC champs. We’re going to a bowl game, and we’ve been in a bowl game before.”
In reality, the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl gives both conferences that same recruiting pull, since no other FCS school plays in a bowl game. The game has obviously had a huge impact on the MEAC and SWAC, but it could also change the landscape of FCS football.
“There are other FCS conferences inquiring about how they can be a part of a bowl game that the SWAC and MEAC are participating in. It really tells you how far this game has come,” said SWAC commissioner Charles McClelland. “We have the ability to bring in quality student-athletes and provide them the opportunity to participate in a bowl game that no other FCS conference will be able to participate in, and it’s definitely re-energized our conference.”
For the other 11 FCS conferences, it’s either the playoffs or nothing. And if the school isn’t winning it all or making deep playoff runs, it’s likely losing money. With the Celebration Bowl, schools are gaining not only revenue but a bigger platform.
This year, the game will be on ABC with the broadcast team of Mark Jones, Jay Walker, Dusty Dvoracek and Molly McGrath. Walker is no stranger to HBCU football and the rest of the crew are well-known from announcing games for Power 5 conferences.
Each game has been competitive and drawn at least 2 million viewers since the inaugural game in 2015, which was more than the FCS championship every time during that same time span.
Compare ratings for the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl against early FBS bowl games and it can hold its own. In 2017, the game was ranked second in viewership out of the first eight bowl games and was second behind only the Las Vegas Bowl in payouts.
While the game is beneficial for everybody involved, it isn’t a new concept. Both conferences previously played in the Heritage Bowl (1991-99) and the Pelican Bowl (1972, 1974-75). The Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl took the same concept of these games but got the conferences to guarantee that their champions would play in the game instead of the playoffs, which makes what the executive director of the game, John Grant, calls a championship-level event.
“Being the first game of the bowl season is critically important to us because we open the bowl season with a championship game on network television,” said Grant. “We have all of the ingredients to create a first-class experience for the players and the fans.”