For years, the Tuskegee-Morehouse Classic has been a staple in Columbus.
This Saturday will mark the 78th year the game has been held at A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium, making it the longest-running rivalry among historically black colleges and universities.
The game draws huge crowds from both fan bases to the city for the weekend, providing a substantial economic impact to businesses in the area. According to the Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau, the game generates an economic impact of $1.2 million.
Despite the game's long and prosperous history in the city, it's anything but a certainty Columbus will continue as host after this year.
The Classic Committee, led by chairman Howard Willis, renews its contract with the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department on a year-to-year basis, never signing an extended contract. Asked about the progress in renewing the contract for the 2014 season, Willis said it was "to be determined."
"We look at the bottom line every year, and, of course, we've been here for 78 years," Willis said. "But it's getting a lot more difficult to keep it at Memorial for a lot of reasons. We have to compete against better stadiums, better environments and better support from city government for stadiums across the country."
Willis cited a handful of reasons why the game's future in Columbus is up in the air, in particular the stadium's inability to accommodate sponsors. Memorial Stadium has a moderately sized press area and four boxes, which are usually reserved for coaches and TV and radio broadcast personnel.
"Every year, I find it a lot more difficult because sponsors we solicit from want to know if we have boxes, and we don't have that sort of thing," Willis said. "We have to do the best we can with what we've got as far as facilities. We have a tough time deciding who's going to sit in the press box because there are no comfortable areas in the stadium to treat sponsors as they are accustomed to being treated."
Willis also said the committee is paying the bill for the majority of the game's expenses, including housing costs for both football teams and processing fees on tickets sold through Ticketmaster. He stressed that the committee is a nonprofit organization trying to support the students at both schools.
"When the budget exceeds $80,000, it gets awfully hard to foot that bill," he said. "We have certain people who have been great in support -- Aflac, for example. But their support has limits. It gets very difficult when you have to go out and raise that money yourself. We don't have a paid staff. So, the future of this game is going to be up for grabs."
City manager Isaiah Hugley said the city appreciates the long history of the Tuskegee-Morehouse game.
"The game is certainly a great event that adds to the quality of life for citizens not just in Columbus, but in our region," he said. "It's been a great football game, great tailgating, and in recent years has gotten even better.
"It is a game that could stand more corporate support. It's going to take the committee working on the corporate side, and there could be more support from the sports council. The game may not have gotten as much support as it needs economically, not because we don't want to support the Classic, but we all know it's been tough economic times. The city has struggles with its budget."
Other possible sites
Willis acknowledged, however, that other cities, including Phenix City and Montgomery, have approached him about bringing the Classic to them.
Phenix City has Garrett-Harrison Stadium, which seats a little more than half of Memorial Stadium's capacity. Phenix City Mayor Eddie Lowe said the city is interested in bringing college games to the city.
"Naturally, that would be one of those games we'd love to have," he said in reference to Tuskegee-Morehouse.
Lowe noted the facilities for the players as positive aspects for the stadium, as well as the field that will be artificial turf beginning next season. One drawback would be parking and places for tailgating, but Lowe doesn't see that as a problem.
"There are logistical things that every college has the same problem with," he said. "Even if you have 110,000 people coming to a game, you'll have parking issues. At the end of the day, you get that resolved because you keep your eyes on the big picture."
The Cramton Bowl in Montgomery is another option that has been mentioned. Rob Hollingshead, the facilities manager for the Cramton Bowl, is a part of the committee in Montgomery that pursues games for the city. It landed a six-year contract in August for an ESPN-owned college bowl, which will be called the Camellia Bowl. Hollingshead said the committee has discussed bringing Tuskegee to Montgomery, but he said the Classic specifically has not been discussed at length.
Facilities in Montgomery would be a significant upgrade, considering seating capacity (25,000), locker rooms (four total) and a three-level press box, which would offer more space for sponsors, as Willis had mentioned.
"When people come here, they don't have to worry about much," Hollingshead said in regards to hospitality.
The other option, Willis said, is that the game rotates location between the two schools on a yearly basis.
Wanting to stay put
Still, all involved hope the issues can be resolved, and the game can maintain its presence in Columbus.
Andre Pattillo, athletic director at Morehouse, praised the event.
"Obviously, it's just an annual tradition," Pattillo said. "It's something that has always taken place. It's the oldest (HBCU game) in existence. I think we all want things to continue as they have been."
It's possible nothing changes, Willis acknowledged. In order for that to happen, he said he'd like to see certain levels of support from the city and sponsors.
"What I need from this community is more support," he said. "We pay both housing costs for the football teams, which is very expensive. For the Capital City Classic in Washington, D.C., their sports authority pays for transportation, housing and food, and they get a substantial amount just to come play in the bowl. They had the city of Washington, their staff and sports authority work from Day 1 to help Morehouse and Howard put on this classic (now in it's third year). We have none of that, despite being the oldest black classic.
"I understand Columbus, Ga., is not Washington, D.C., but we've been here for 78 years providing economic support to hotels, gas stations, shopping centers and vendors. For 78 years, and we haven't gotten a lot of support. We have to beg them to put us in the budget, beg them to consider helping us out, trying to convince people this classic is something to invest in because you live in Columbus."
Hugley said Columbus officials need to talk with the committee.
"What we need to do with the Classic officials is to have a discussion about how we can work closer together and how we might be able to invite the corporate community to the table to have added support to insure that long history does not go away.
"The city is willing to sit down and have that discussion. Certainly, we want that game to stay here in Columbus. It has a great economic impact.