As an adult, Benefield, president of the Alabama A&M Alumni Association, lived for a while in New Orleans and believed there was no bigger spectacle among historically black colleges and universities than the Bayou Classic, pitting Grambling State against Southern.
But Benefield has changed his mind. “Now the Magic City Classic has overtaken the Bayou Classic,” he said, “making that the largest event for black colleges.”
Black College Living has posted on hbculifestyle.com its rankings of the biggest HBCU classics based on attendance. The Magic City Classic has been atop that list the past two years.
Those attendance figures for the Magic City Classic don’t include the throng in the parking lot around Legion Field for tailgating. Many in that crowd choose not to come into the stadium.
Benefield is a native of Birmingham’s Woodlawn neighborhood who continued attending the Classic after he moved away, traveling back to town for the game and to visit with family.
The Pearland, Texas, resident said he missed a year and was shocked when he returned by how much tailgating had expanded around the stadium.
“I think it was right before the tailgating took off,” he recalled. “Coming back and seeing that many people tailgating around the stadium, that was a big surprise to me. Everybody in the city has accepted the Magic City Classic. It’s not necessarily Alabama A&M and Alabama State, but individuals in the city have adopted it.”
Shooting for a sellout
Gene Hallman, whose Bruno Event Team has managed the Classic since 2000, has long wanted to reel tailgaters into the stadium. The game day experience includes a postgame concert by an international celebrity.
This year, Ludacris, an American hip-hop artist and actor, is the celebrity ambassador. He will be the Grand Marshal of the McDonald’s Magic City Classic parade and honored during the halftime show. Ludacris, a staple of the “Fast and Furious” film series, will perform at the postgame concert at Legion Field.
The concert will begin immediately after play ends and admission is included in the price of the game ticket. Game tickets have been sold to people in 30 states.
Magiccityclassic.com cites the goal of achieving a sellout and possibly drawing 75,000 fans for the 75th game. Hallman said those goals are attainable. He notes the availability of general admission tickets in the end zones.
“We’re consistently 10,000 short of a sellout,” he said. “I think this year we could see that extra 10,000 if for no other reason than it’s the 75th annual.”
A holiday in Birmingham
Of course, the McDonald’s Magic City Classic presented by Coca-Cola is more than a game. It’s several days of events in and around Birmingham.
“It’s like a holiday there in Birmingham,” said Cornwell Handy, the director of Alabama State’s Alumni Relations and a member of the ASU Class of 1980. “You’ve got people coming to the game who didn’t attend either school. It’s really more of a Birmingham event than it is a school event.”
Official Magic City Classic events include the pep rally Thursday evening at the Sheraton Hotel, the downtown parade at 8 a.m. Saturday and the game at 3 p.m. But there is so much more.
“The number of ancillary events – both official and unofficial – around the Classic have probably tripled,” Hallman said, citing concerts, step shows and fashion shows among those events.
David Galbaugh of the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau said the 2015 Classic had an economic impact of more than $18 million. He expects a similar impact this year.
“It’s not just a Friday-Saturday anymore,” Galbaugh said. “People start coming in midweek. We add that into the economic impact figures. We’re looking at four days. People come in on a Wednesday or Thursday and they don’t leave until Sunday.”
‘Better every year’
Birmingham has stepped up its game as host, sprucing up Legion Field over the years. A shuttle service was initiated to help fans travel to and from the historic venue without having to deal with heavy traffic.
“All those things ultimately add to the Classic,” Galbaugh said. “We continue to try to make the event better every year.”
While Saturday’s 3 p.m. kickoff will be the 75th Magic City Classic, it is the 79th overall meeting between the two largest HBCUs in Alabama. The schools initially played a home-and-home series, with Alabama State winning four before moving the game to Birmingham.
Since initiating the Magic City Classic, Alabama A&M leads the Birmingham series with 38 wins, 33 losses and three ties. Each team is currently 2-5 overall and 2-4 in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.