New Orleans officials are hoping for record attendance this year at the 44th annual Bayou Classic football game, which will see two Louisiana college teams compete for a shot at a conference championship.
Grambling State University and Southern University will face off for the chance to play in the Toyota Southwestern Athletic Conference Football Championship in Houston on Dec. 2.
Saturday’s game in New Orleans, and the events leading up to it, are not only a chance for supporters to cheer on their team; they are a celebration of Louisiana’s historically black colleges and universities, organizers said Monday.
“When we stand together, and think as one, and do as one, in support of HBCUs, we help to strengthen our future and the lives of students who attend them,” said Dottie Belletto, president and CEO of New Orleans Convention Co., the firm that manages the Bayou Classic.
The annual face-off between the two historically black universities has brought thousands of visitors to New Orleans over Thanksgiving weekend annually since 1974, after the event was launched in Shreveport in a 1973 test run.
The nationally televised Saturday afternoon game is the big draw of the weekend affair, though other events will include a Friday night Greek Show & Battle of the Bands, a Saturday morning parade and a Sunday gospel brunch.
The parade, which has been held on Thanksgiving Day since 2012, has been moved this year to Saturday in an attempt to give fans more time to enjoy the holiday with their families, organizer Angela Young said.
Another featured event is a Friday business and technology challenge, in which students from eight HBCUs will present their plans to improve companies specializing in advanced manufacturing, clean energy and digital technologies.
Last year, more than 67,800 patrons attended the game, the highest attendance since before Hurricane Katrina, when turnout regularly topped 70,000.
That was only about 2,000 people fewer than the number who attended last year’s Super Bowl, Grambling President Richard Gallot said Monday at a gathering to celebrate the weekend affair.
“When you add to that the $50 million economic impact that Bayou Classic generates, it’s a really big deal,” he said.
This year, officials hope to see an even higher turnout, and early ticket sales look promising. More than 46,500 tickets have already been sold, which is about 6,000 more than were sold last year at this time.
Tourism officials are projecting 93 percent occupancy at area hotels on Friday night and 89 percent occupancy on Saturday.
That would be down slightly from last year’s occupancy, which was 96 percent on both days, though the projections are expected to grow as the event draws closer, said Kristian Sonnier of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The friendly rivalry between the two teams that has traditionally drawn such big crowds was on display Monday, as Gallot ended his speech by reminding onlookers of Grambling’s status as the “defending HBCU national champion.”
After it beat Southern 52-30 in the 2016 Bayou Classic, Grambling went on to secure the SWAC Championship title and to win the national Celebration Bowl in Atlanta, an affair that pits the SWAC champion against the champion of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, or MEAC.
Both the SWAC and MEAC conferences feature historically black colleges.
Southern University Chancellor Ray Belton to Gallot responded with a joking shot at Grambling as he addressed the crowd.
“The news broadcast suggested that on Saturday, the weather will be sunny and calm,” he said. “I commit to you that by the end of the game on Saturday evening, the sun will be shining on Southern University.”
Over the past four decades, Southern has won the game 21 times, while Grambling has won it 22 times. Saturday will give Southern the chance to tie things back up.
Whoever wins will go up against Alcorn State University in December for the SWAC title.