SWAC banking on Celebration Bowl for money, prestige
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) —
The Southwestern Athletic Conference is all-in when it comes to the Celebration Bowl, banking on it to put the league on better financial footing.
The SWAC is dropping its championship game in a money-saving move. The league won't have a title contest starting in 2018 after ending up in the red because of dwindling attendance.
"Whenever you get a million dollars and you're not spending a million dollars on your own championship game, it helps tremendously," SWAC Commissioner Duer Sharp said Friday at the league's media day.
The SWAC's postseason, barring receiving what is believed would be its first at-large FCS playoff berth, will pit the champion against the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference winner in the Celebration Bowl at Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
But it's not just about the money. Coaches in the league that once routinely produced NFL stars, including Jerry Rice and Walter Payton, believe the platform will have a positive impact on recruiting, enhance the prestige of the conference and make travel easier for fans.
The 2-year-old Celebration Bowl gives the leagues a showcase on network television. The 2017 game is the first bowl of the season, airing Dec. 16 on ABC.
The SWAC has a six-year contract to play in the bowl game and Sharp is hoping to extend it to 10.
The league has held its own championship game since 1999, moving from Birmingham to Houston in 2013. The first three games at NRG Stadium each drew about 40,000 fans but that number dropped to 24,917 in 2016.
"Our presidents just said it's not sustainable," Sharp said.
The championship game was sandwiched between the long-running Bayou Classic, which features Grambling State and Southern, and the Celebration Bowl. The tight schedule meant several potentially costly trips for fans.
Some coaches initially had reservations about the decision to drop the title game, but have started to come around after learning more about the reasons behind the decision.
"We're rolling all our chips into the Celebration Bowl, and it's going to be big," said Grambling coach Broderick Fobbs, whose tradition-rich program is 7-2 in SWAC championship games. "All 10 of our schools here in the SWAC conference and also in the MEAC conference, we're considered FBS programs now. So when you've got an opportunity to play in a game of that magnitude on national television, with the benefits that it brings, it's huge for all teams involved."
Fobbs said he's hoping the SWAC can eventually bring its championship game back, perhaps cutting costs by playing in the top seed's stadium like the Sun Belt and Conference USA.
Sharp said dropping the title game in favor of the bowl contest should increase the league's annual payouts to member schools, but isn't sure yet how much. He said it will help schools cover the costs of using instant replay.
The commissioner said next year "those funds that we would have spent on the SWAC football championship, we'll now take those funds and purchase video equipment for all 10 member institutions."
The SWAC doesn't receive an automatic bid for the FCS playoffs, and like the Ivy League, doesn't participate in the FCS postseason. Sharp said the conference wants to be a part of the postseason, but it doesn't seem that will happen anytime soon.
First, it would have to be a team other than the championship game — or Celebration Bowl — participants.
Also, several teams have annual scheduling conflicts. The league would have to change the dates of the Bayou Classic, along with Alabama State's regular-season finale against other in-state teams — traditionally Tuskegee, which has since stopped the rivalry to become eligible for the Division playoffs — because they are on the same weekend as the first round of the playoffs.
Changing the dates of those SWAC staples isn't really an option.
"Tradition's too much," Sharp said. "My first year in the league, I actually took the Bayou Classic and I put it in the beginning of the season. I almost lost my job because of that, so tradition is what it is. Bayou plays at the end of the year."
Alabama A&M coach James Spady said he initially wasn't happy about the call to drop the championship game but believes the SWAC and MEAC need to make the most of being the only FCS conferences with a postseason bowl game.
"We have to throw ourselves behind the Celebration Bowl," Spady said. "It makes us unique in college football."
Coaches in a league that once churned out future NFL stars Jerry Rice and Walter Payton also can use the chance to play a game on network TV as a recruiting pitch.
Spady is a former Nevada assistant who remembers the effect playing in a bowl game could have on recruits.
"We'll be able to do that as well at this level," he said. "It's a great recruiting tool."