Circle City Classic cancels Indianapolis football game, shocking fans

When the lights come on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium for this year’s Circle City Classic, nearly four decades of tradition will follow – with one major difference: no football game.

Cherished by many as a rare opportunity to showcase the athletic talent of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), the August cancellation came as a shock.

Leslie Watts, 51, said he’s been attending the Circle City Classic since he was a teenager in Arlington High School. When he heard the news, his reaction was “Wow”.

“It’s not a real classic without the football game,” Watts said.

He admitted that the game itself is not the highlight. At HBCUs, the halftime performance is often considered the main event: where acrobatic drum majors collect “oohs” and “aahs” underlined by trumpets that blare hip-hop music.

But Watts and others fear the cancellation of the game, which has struggled for years to fill seats, is a sign of impending demise. One step closer to cultural relevance. One more step towards final closure.

Without a game, Circle City Classic will instead feature performances by at least five HBCU groups, followed by a staged competition between historically black fraternities and sororities, according to a press release. Other essentials such as the rally and the parade of encouragement will continue.

Some believe the event will draw a larger crowd, with more groups and less “background noise” of a football match.

But for others, it’s not enough.

“It doesn’t even make sense,” Watts said, “to have the battle of the groups and not a battle of the football teams.”

Circle City Classic: “The best black college football classic in the country”

At the first Circle City Classic, founded by Reverend Charles Williams in 1984, future NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice celebrated two touchdowns in a tense showdown between Mississippi Valley State and Grambling University at the old RCA dome.

A crowd of nearly 40,000 black fans cheered, believed at the time to be the largest gathering of Black Hoosiers at a single event in city history.

Grambling State University coach Eddie Robinson, left, and Mississippi coach Archie Cooley walk through the Hoosier Dome before the first Circle City Classic football game in 1984. Indianapolis Star File Photo by Jeff Atteberry

The momentum continued, paving the way for the first sold-out Circle City Classic game in 1990.

In 1999, publications called it “the nation’s best black college football classic.” Major sponsors like Coca-Cola were on board. Nationally broadcast television stations like BET aired games. More than 60,000 people would flock to Indianapolis from all over the country, spending millions.

Gary Sailes, who teaches sports and social justice at IU, remembers those days fondly. After his first visit to the Circle City Classic in 1989, Sailes said he hadn’t missed a game for almost a decade. His reaction to the news: “Disappointment”.

“It’s a black social institution,” Sailes, 71, said, “a celebration of black history.”

Fuller and Rose Jones had attended every Circle City Classic game since 1984 when they are seen in this photo, October 3, 1993. Indianapolis Star file photo by Ron Ira Steele

Eliminating the football game, Sailes said, nullifies the rare opportunity for representation for black athletes and coaches in HBCUs.

Removing black coaches, black kickers and black quarterbacks from the football field, Sailes said, reduces black pride and severs ties to black history.

“The football game matters,” Sailes said, “because it’s part of something bigger.”

Gary Sailes talks Wednesday, September 14, 2022 about losing the Circle City Classic football game. "I think the game is a victim of a bit of apathy, of COVID, and has lost a bit of its aura," he said. "I think when leaders and managers do something unique to make people curious, they will come."

Ron Walton, 51, who has attended the Circle City Classic since he was a student at the University of Indianapolis, said he felt “disturbed”.

“And they still haven’t given us a definitive reason,” Walton said, “why they haven’t.”

Decline in popularity and profitability

When IndyStar asked why there was no football game this year, Indiana Black Expo management responded via email to refer to their press release.

“We have enjoyed highlighting student athletes and HBCU football programs over the years,” the press release reads. “This year, instead of highlighting football, Classic will feature the programs of HBCU groups and their contributions to HBCU culture.”

IndyStar spoke with several people officially involved in Circle City Classic.

The cancellation appears to be a symptom of a decline in popularity and profitability that dates back more than a decade.

Joe Slash showcases an Indiana Black Expo and Circle City Classic themed football helmet cooler on Tuesday, September 20, 2022, in his basement in Indianapolis.  Slash was the first black deputy mayor of Indianapolis, as well as president of the Indianapolis Urban League.  He is also a former director and executive committee member of Indiana Sports Corp.  and the Circle City Classic, for which he served as executive coordinator.  Slash says he's proud the event is still happening.

In a 2010 Indianapolis Star article, amid concerns about dwindling attendance, then-CEO Tanya Bell called for the return of a $150,000 grant withdrawn that year- the. Bell said the Circle City Classic game and related events had attracted 10,000 fewer people the previous year and that “a lot of this was due to original marketing”, for which the BIE needed funds.

Attendance has since dipped, never peaking again.

Former Circle City Classic executive coordinator Joe Slash, 79, said sponsorship dollars have been dissolved as more classics appear across the country. When the Circle City Classic was born, it was one of the few, Slash said. In the early 2000s, it was one of dozens.

Joe Slash looks down Tuesday, September 20, 2022 in a group photo taken during a Circle City Classic at the time.

Slash explained that less money from sponsors meant less money to pay top HBCUs. As smaller, local HBCUs with smaller alumni were brought in instead, fan numbers dwindled. So is sponsor interest, he said, and so is sponsor money. It has become a cyclical problem.

George Pillow, game director for the Circle City Classic for more than two decades, witnessed ephemeral funds during his tenure. He understands IBE’s decision-making but laments the loss of the game.

“It gave young black athletes a chance to play in a major league stadium,” said Pillow, 73, “and dream some of their dreams.”

“Black Excellence” is in full swing

But not everyone will miss the rattle of helmets and the collision of studs.

Carlette Duffy, 48, sees the cancellation of the football game as a welcome change. She’s excited for Saturday.

Bethune-Cookman University players walk to center field at the Hoosier Dome and shout in jubilation as they wrap up practice for their 1989 Circle City Classic football game against Jackson State University.  Indianapolis Star File Photo by Ron Ira Steele

“I think if it had continued on the path it was on,” Duffy said, “(the Circle City Classic) would have been on the way out for good.”

Duffy said she has been going to the Circle City Classic every year, ever since she performed there as a cheerleader in Manual High School. During the game, Duffy said, people are mostly walking around and socializing; only returning to their seats for the group’s performances at halftime.

She was “shocked” when she first heard the news, but later recalled that “nobody” was watching the game.

Groups are “what people love,” she said.

With this year’s format with more bands, Duffy thinks not only will more people be likely to attend, but fewer people will walk around.

Dominic Dorsey, 40, agrees.

“There’s always been so much more to the Classic than the game,” Dorsey said. “It’s a seasonal celebration of black excellence.”

Carlette Duffy speaks Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, about the Circle City Classic at her home in Indianapolis.  Duffy remembers attending the event as a high school student with her grandparents in the 90s. She says she always went to the football game, but most looked forward to the groups in competition.

Circle City Classic events at Lucas Oil Stadium are scheduled to begin Saturday at 3 p.m. For more information, visit lucasoilstadium.com/event/circle-city-classic.

Contact IndyStar reporter Brandon Drenon at 317-517-3340 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @BrandonDrenon.

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