Circle City Classic boosts HBCU band competition, drops football game
Carlette Duffy and Gary Sailes share their thoughts on the loss of the annual football game but an addition to the band competition.
Mykal McEldowney, Indianapolis Star
When the lights turn on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium for this year’s Circle City Classic, nearly four decades of tradition will follow – with one major difference: No football game.
Cherished by many as a rare chance to showcase the athletic talent of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), the August cancellation came as a shock.
Leslie Watts, 51, said he’s been going to the Circle City Classic since he was a teenager at Arlington High School. When he heard the news, his reaction was, “Wow.”
“It’s not a real Classic without the football game,” Watts said.
He admitted that the game itself is not the highlight. At HBCUs, the halftime performance is often considered the main event: where acrobatic drum majors garner “oohs” and “aahs” underscored by trumpets blaring hip-hop music.
But Watts and others fear that canceling the game, which has struggled for years to fill seats, is a sign of imminent demise. One step further from cultural relevance. One step closer to permanent closure.
Without a game, Circle City Classic will instead feature performances from at least five HBCU bands followed by a step competition among historically Black fraternities and sororities, according to a press release. Other staples like the pep rally and parade will continue.
Some believe the event will draw a bigger crowd, with more bands and less “background noise” of a football game.
But for others, it’s not enough.
“That doesn’t even make sense,” Watts said, “to have the battle of the bands and not a battle of the football teams.”
Circle City Classic: ‘The top, Black college football classic in the nation’
In the inaugural Circle City Classic, founded by Rev. Charles Williams in 1984, future NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice celebrated two touchdowns in a tense showdown between Mississippi Valley State and Grambling University at the old RCA Dome.
A crowd of nearly 40,000 Black fans cheered along, believed at the time to be the largest gathering of Black Hoosiers at any single event in the city’s history.
The momentum continued, paving the way for the first sold-out Circle City Classic game in 1990.
By 1999, publications referred to it as “the top, Black college football classic in the nation.” Major sponsors like Coca-Cola were onboard. Nationally broadcasted TV networks like BET aired games. 60,000-plus people would pour into Indianapolis from across the country, spending millions.
Gary Sailes, who teaches sports and social justice at IU, remembers those days with nostalgia. After his first visit to the Circle City Classic in 1989, Sailes said he didn’t miss a game for almost a decade. His reaction to the news: “Disappointment.”
“It’s a Black social institution,” Sailes, 71, said, “a celebration of Black history.”
Eliminating the football game, Sailes said, chips away at the rare opportunity of representation for Black athletes and coaches at HBCUs.
Eliminating Black coaches, Black kickers and Black quarterbacks from the football field, Sailes said, chips away at Black pride and severs ties with Black history.
“The football game matters,” Sailes said, “because it’s a part of something bigger.”
Ron Walton, 51, who’s been attending the Circle City Classic since he was a college student at the University of Indianapolis, said he felt “bothered.”
“And they still haven’t given us a definitive reason,” Walton said, “why they aren’t having it.”
Declining popularity and profitability
When IndyStar asked why there was no football game this year, Indiana Black Expo leadership responded via an emailed statement to refer to its press release.
“We have enjoyed highlighting student athletes and the HBCU football programs over the years,” the press release reads. “This year, instead of highlighting football, Classic will showcase HBCU band programs and their contributions to HBCU culture.”
IndyStar spoke with several people formally involved with Circle City Classic.
The cancellation appears to be a symptom of declining popularity and profitability that dates back over a decade.
In a 2010 Indianapolis Star article, amid concerns about shrinking attendance, then-IBE CEO Tanya Bell asked for the return of a $150,000 grant withdrawn that year. Bell said the Circle City Classic game and related events drew 10,000 fewer people the year prior and that “a lot of it has to do with original marketing,” for which IBE needed funds.
Attendance has wavered since, never again reaching its peak.
Former Circle City Classic executive coordinator Joe Slash, 79, said sponsorship dollars dissolved as more Classics appeared around the country. When the Circle City Classic originated it was one of few, Slash said. By the early 2000s, it was one of dozens.
Slash explained, less money from sponsors meant less money to pay top HBCUs. As local, smaller HBCUs, with smaller alumnus, were brought in instead, the number of fans decreased. So did the interest of sponsors, he said, and, so did sponsorship dollars. It became a cyclical problem.
George Pillow, game director for the Circle City Classic for over two decades, witnessed funds fleeting during his tenure. He understands IBE’s decision-making but laments the loss of the game.
“It gave young Black athletes a chance to play in a major league stadium,” Pillow, 73, said, “and dream some of their dreams.”
‘Black excellence’ beats on
But, not everyone will miss the clanking of helmets and collision of cleats.
Carlette Duffy, 48, sees canceling the football game as a welcomed change. She’s excited for Saturday.
“I think if it would’ve continued on the path it was on,” Duffy said, “(the Circle City Classic) would’ve been on its way out for good.”
Duffy said she’s gone to Circle City Classic every year, since performing in one as a cheerleader at Manual High School. During the game, Duffy said, people mostly walk around and socialize; only returning to their seats for band performances at halftime.
She was “shocked” when she first heard the news but then recalled that “nobody” watches the game.
The bands are “what people love,” she said.
With this year’s format featuring more bands, Duffy believes not only are more people likely to attend but fewer people will meander.
Dominic Dorsey, 40, agrees.
“There’s always been so much more to the Classic than the game,” Dorsey said. “It’s a seasonal celebration of Black excellence.”
Circle City Classic events at Lucas Oil Stadium are scheduled to begin Saturday at 3 p.m. For more information, visit lucasoilstadium.com/event/circle-city-classic.
Contact IndyStar reporter Brandon Drenon at 317-517-3340 or BDrenon@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BrandonDrenon.
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