Circle City Classic organizers look to boost 27-year-old event

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Indiana Black Expo officials are fighting to breathe new life into the Circle City Classic, but they have a steep hill to climb to assure the 27-year-old event maintains long-term financial viability in Indianapolis.

Coming off a year in which ticket revenue declined 19 percent, sponsorship revenue fell 12 percent and overall revenue dropped 15 percent, IBE officials hope a series of new attractions and events will stir up more interest in the annual football game and festival.

“Things are going quite well,” said IBE spokeswoman Elizabeth Hart. “Ticket sales are trending well; we think better than last year. We expect a big draw this year from followers of the out-of-town schools involved as well as local residents. We think we have some attractions that are really going to bring people to the event this year.”
This year’s game, to be played Saturday in Lucas Oil Stadium, features North Carolina A&T State University against Tennessee State University.

Last year, attendance for the game, which features two historically black colleges, was 36,000, near an all-time low. Attendance for the game has been slowly waning for several years, but the decline has accelerated in recent years. Attendance slid from 58,000 in 1995 to 47,000 in 2008 before tumbling dramatically last year.

The Classic always attracts more people beyond those attending the game. In its heyday, the event, which also includes a parade, coaches’ luncheon and job fair, drew more than 70,000 people downtown and brought $15 million in direct visitor spending to Indianapolis, according to the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association.

“Anytime you have an event that dates back that long, you have to keep it fresh or it loses a little bit of its pizzazz,” said Milt Thompson, president of Grand Slam Cos., a locally based sports marketing firm.

That’s exactly what event organizers have done, Hart said. New features to the week-long event include a high school football game held Friday night; festivities during Saturday’s college game featuring the “Divine 9,” the nine fraternity and sororities traditionally active on campuses of historically black colleges; and a post-game drum-line battle. The high school game features local powerhouses Warren Central and Carmel, and should be a big draw, Thompson said.

“We’ve worked hard to broaden the appeal,” Hart said.

The changes come in the midst of a management shift for the event. The Classic, previously led by a volunteer committee under IBE’s direction, lost its executive director, Marc Williams, who resigned in October 2009, just four months after replacing long-time event director, Tony Mason. Mason left to join the 2012 Super Bowl Host Committee.

In late 2009, the IBE, under president Tanya Bell, took control of the event directly. Thompson thinks that was part of a cost-savings move. The change was supported by the Indiana Sports Corp., which helped launch the Classic in 1984 and still gets 20 percent of the proceeds—when there are any.

Under Bell, the Classic staff has beefed up marketing in the home cities of the participating schools and key regional markets such as Chicago.

“We’ve been very active in our outreach and we expect that to pay off,” Hart said.

But David Morton, president of Sunrise Sports Group, a locally based sports marketing consultancy, said Classic organizers need to do a better job of outreach in central Indiana.

“A lot of people aren’t even aware the game is this weekend,” Morton said. “I haven’t seen any advertising or other proof of local marketing efforts.”

Grand Slam’s Thompson said that’s a direct result of the economy.

“Marketing is largely a function of corporate partnerships,” Thompson said. “With the dwindling dollars, they don’t have the corporate marketing dollars to push through the market clutter.”

Meeting the event’s $2.5 million annual budget has been a challenge in recent years, event organizers said.

Joe Slash, who has served as the Classic’s executive coordinator, told IBJ that last year’s event was close to breaking even. In past years, it funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars in proceeds to not-for-profit beneficiaries.

With ticket prices for the game between $15 and $50, a crowd of 40,000 would generate about half the needed event-operating budget, leaving sponsorship to cover most of the rest.

“In this economy, that’s a big gap to close,” Thompson said.

The Circle City Classic is not alone in its challenges. Two other marquee classics—the Bayou Classic and Florida Classic—also have struggled to maintain attendance. A slew of competing weekends that copy what the three marquee events created hasn’t helped.

Hart stressed that the event is financially sound and IBE executives plan to hold it for years to come.

“We’re celebrating 27 years of this event, and we plan to be here at least 27 more,” Hart said. “We’ve raised $2.4 million for college scholarships since the Classic’s inception. We’ll raise $150,000 for scholarships this year.”

Thompson still has concerns.

“I’ve always been bullish on the event as a part of the fabric of the community,” Thompson said. “On the future prospects, I’m not as bullish because it’s very difficult to predict future success in this perilous economy.”

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