Saturday, September 18, 2004

Successful Classic striving for more

By Colleen Kane
Enquirer staff writer

The Procter & Gamble Ohio Classic returns to Cincinnati today after a one-year absence, and John Pace, president of World Class Events Management, thinks it could have its biggest success here yet.



Location: Grambling, La.

2003-04 enrollment: About 4,500


Location: Daytona Beach, Fla.

2003-04 enrollment: 2,640

Famous players/coaches from Grambling State and Bethune-Cookman

• Paul "Tank" Younger (Grambling): The NFL's first player from a predominantly black college.

• James Harris (Grambling): The first black quarterback drafted in the NFL.

• Doug Williams (Grambling): Super Bowl MVP in 1988.

• Eddie Robinson (Grambling): Was college football's all-time winningest coach when he retired in 1997.

• Alvin Wyatt (Bethune-Cookman): The Wildcats' head coach, was an All-American defensive back at Bethune-Cookman.

With a higher budget of $1.85 million, big-name celebrities like rapper Ludacris and a football game between Bethune-Cookman and storied Grambling State, organizers expect at least 30,000 people to hit Paul Brown Stadium today.

"It's shaping up to be the largest attendance here yet," Pace said.

The Classic attracted nearly 50,000 to Cleveland last year, and organizers have decided to rotate the game between there and Cincinnati. The decision was made in hope of moving it into an even more successful era than the Classic's previous five showings.

The annual meeting between two historically black colleges began in 1999 at Cinergy Field as the Riverfront Classic. It was an idea by Pace and others to raise money and increase education and awareness in the black community.

"We could not have projected some of the challenges along the way," Pace said. "The fact that the organization is still alive is a miracle, it's a testament to our organization and the sponsors."

In its first two years, it drew crowds of about 25,000.

Then in 2001, the last time Grambling State was scheduled to play, the game was canceled because of 9/11. In 2002, the festival was held despite race-related boycotts throughout the city, something that affected attendance and sales 30-35 percent, Pace said.

"It was a dilemma for us and some of the folks that supported the Classic," Pace said. "We had to work diligently to get people to come to Cincinnati because there were concerns because of safety factors and because some didn't understand the issues around the boycott. ... We're probably still working to regain some of that support."

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The Classic was scheduled to return to Cincinnati in 2003, but a scheduling conflict at Paul Brown Stadium forced its relocation to Cleveland. The yearly rotation was agreed upon to ease budget strains on the communities, keep local people from getting bored with the event and draw crowds from a larger radius, Pace said.

He hopes the event will draw 45,000 fans in the next few years. Some Classics, like Grambling State's annual Bayou Classic with Southern at the Louisiana Superdome, attract nearly 70,000.

The Classic and its surrounding events are expected to bring in $10 million for the city this weekend. But there might be a bigger benefit.

"Young African-Americans in particular don't have enough opportunity to see role models who look like them," Pace said. "When they come, they see these student-athletes and student musicians that not only look like them, but dress like them and talk like them and come from their communities."

And it's positive for the teams that travel great distances. Grambling State coach Melvin Spears said in his time at the school, his team has traveled to San Jose, New York, San Diego, Portland, San Antonio, Las Vegas and Indianapolis.

"(Former Grambling coach) Eddie Robinson started the Classics," Spears said. "He wanted players to come to Grambling to see the world. It's the reason we have so much notoriety and our players get exposure to other venues."

Along with the recruiting benefits, the Ohio Classic will contribute about $650,000 to Grambling and Bethune-Cookman for their appearance here, Pace said. And other donations will be made to scholarship funds for historically black colleges and universities.

"It helps to balance our budget," Spears said.

Pace thinks it can benefit everybody.

"We can come together as a community and celebrate our culture," Pace said. "It's such a positive and uplifting atmosphere."

Game Day

Who: Grambling State vs. Bethune-Cookman

Where: Paul Brown Stadium.

When: 1 p.m. Saturday.

TV: In Cincinnati - Time Warner Digital Cable, Ch. 176; In Kentucky - Insight Cable, Ch. 443.

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