How the Celebration Bowl came into existence

To fulfill his vision for his conference’s football teams, Dennis Thomas was willing to play a long game of persuading, listening and waiting. The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference commissioner’s patience will be rewarded Saturday when North Carolina A&T and Alcorn State meet in the Georgia Dome for the inaugural Celebration Bowl.

It will be the fruition of a plan first hatched 11 1/2 years ago by leaders of the MEAC, the Southwestern Athletic Conference and ESPN. A former football coach and athletic director, Thomas called it a highlight of his career.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I’m very, very pleased.”

In the college football universe, a bowl game between two teams that couldn’t hold a candle to power-conference competition (Alcorn State was drilled by Georgia Tech in the season opener) may not make much noise. But it carries its own significance. The game matches the champions of the two FCS leagues comprised of historically black colleges and universities. It will be televised on ABC, is expected to draw around 35,000 and will be the first bowl game of the 42-game bowl season.

Said Alcorn State coach Jay Hopson, “Just a true honor and privilege to be here.”

The game is an anomaly — FCS teams largely aim to play in their level’s 24-team playoff. But the SWAC has opted out of the playoff by holding its league championship game on Thanksgiving weekend, the same as the opening round of the playoffs. The MEAC, however, has had an automatic bid into the playoff, and school presidents, chancellors, athletic directors and coaches were loath to give it up.

But Thomas saw value in a bowl game that a playoff spot could not deliver, primarily a national TV platform.

Said Thomas, “You can’t buy this kind of exposure.”

Historically black colleges and universities don’t often enjoy that sort of stage. On Saturday, the Celebration Bowl will be the first out of the chute for college football fans salivating over the bowl onslaught. Last year, the first bowl on the schedule, the New Orleans Bowl, drew a viewership of 2.25 million.

“History says people will be anxious for college football to start,” said Pete Derzis, senior vice president of ESPN Events, which owns and operates the Celebration Bowl.

To Thomas, the window gives not only the football teams, but their schools and conferences, a marketing opportunity that playing for the NCAA’s FCS championship never could.

“Now you get more people seeing your brand and knowing your brand,” Thomas said. “So now it’s about recruiting students. Not just student-athletes, it’s about recruiting students. Now, the more people know of your institutions, the more they will investigate about attending.”

ESPN has operated and broadcast the season-opening MEAC/SWAC Challenge, now played in Orlando, since 2005. Even after putting that together, the network and its event-owning subsidiary were still interested in creating a bowl game between the leagues.

“It was an opportunity to serve a very strategic diversity initiative within our programming,” Derzis said. “The idea that we could create a game that could really fulfill the mission of serving all sports fans really appealed to us.”

The SWAC had no hurdles because it was already not in the playoff. However, Thomas had a harder sell with his constituency because of the automatic bid, although MEAC teams are still eligible to receive at-large bids. At various points, conference presidents, chancellors, athletic directors and coaches were not on board.

“And so periodically, I would keep bringing it back up,” Thomas said.

In March 2014, Thomas had ESPN president John Skipper and other network brass to the league’s basketball tournament meet with school presidents and chancellors and make a presentation.

The benefits perhaps became much clearer. Besides the exposure, both leagues will receive a payment of $1 million, to be shared among member schools. (There is no payout for playing in the FCS playoffs, merely reimbursement and a per diem.) The teams and their fans would enjoy the bowl experience that their FBS brethren enjoy.

That the MEAC has not fared well in the playoffs — its record is 6-28 — likely was a factor, too. The league voted to participate in the bowl in May 2014. The game was announced in March. The leagues have a six-year contract with ESPN Events, and the game, which has the Air Force Reserve as a title sponsor, will move to the Falcons’ new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2017.

Teams arrived Wednesday and were scheduled to receive typical bowl pampering — bowl gifts, dinner at the Georgia Aquarium and a visit to the College Football Hall of Fame. North Carolina A&T offensive tackle Brandon Parker acknowledged that he was leery about giving up a chance to play for the FCS national title, but has come around.

“Even as a little kid, even as a high schooler, you watched the bowl games on TV, you heard about how good they get treated, how the bowl life is,” he said. “You want to take part in it.”

On Saturday in the Georgia Dome, there will be a conference commissioner who would most surely agree.

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