Last week's announcement of a contract renewal for the Southern Heritage Classic, played annually at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, got little press. But the announcement included several interesting features, including the future of the game, administrative policies at the schools involved, and city renovations which factored into the final decision.
The new contract offered by Summitt Management Corporation, which has sponsored the classic for 15 years, included a five-year deal to both Tennessee State University (TSU) and Jackson State University (JSU), beginning in 2005. TSU accepted the five-year offer, while JSU agreed to only three years.
Is JSU considering other options after three years? Both Fred Jones, founder of Summitt, and JSU athletic director Roy Culberson agreed that the decision was merely an administrative matter.
"It was a decision by [JSU] president to have all future contracts at three years," said Jones. "According to the Tennessee Board of Regents policy, we could only offer TSU five years. In Mississippi, the school president makes those decisions."
Although the length of his school's contract was shortened, Culberson said that was no indication that administrators would look to end the relationship with Summitt.
"Memphis is a great venue to play in, and we have a large fan base that enjoys [the Classic] and looks forward to it," he said. "We would be open for renewal after three years."
That renewal could come at an increased payout for Summitt, which renewed this year's contracts with an additional $50,000 for each school. The new contracts call for each team to receive $230,000, while the $20,000 paid to the school's bands remained constant. When asked about negotiations after the 2007 game, Culberson would not say if JSU would ask for more money but said "cost of living" increases to allow for rising transportation and hotel costs were a factor. In addition to the Southern Heritage Classic, JSU also plays annually in the Capital City Classic in Jackson, Mississippi, against Alcorn State University and participates in two or three additional invitational games each year.
Jones and his organization admitted that these are plumb contracts for the two schools. Unlike other college classics or bowl games in which teams must adhere to ticket-selling quotas or other requirements, neither TSU nor JSU is required to sell a single ticket. With production costs, contract payouts, and additional expenses related to other events surrounding the game, Jones estimated his company spends $1 million to produce the Classic.
"We have to start from the ground floor each and every year," he said. "We've taken this situation and started it from point zero with just a name." To continue those obligations, Summitt has brought on corporate sponsors in recent years, specifically FedEx as a title sponsor.
Renovations to the Liberty Bowl and the Mid-South Coliseum, which traditionally houses a concert as part of the Classic's events, could also be a factor in the future. As much as $50 million had been predicted for renovations, but no decision has yet been made, said Pete Aviotti, assistant to city mayor Willie Herenton. Although Jones discussed plans for initial removal of some seats from the stadium, Aviotti disagreed.
"I don't know of anything that would take place prior to the beginning of the season in September," he said. A meeting with Summitt, the University of Memphis, and Liberty Bowl officials is planned for the first Monday in April. Aviotti also said none of the contract agreements made with the schools included any provisions for city renovations.
Despite the uncertainty of events beyond 2007, Jones is still optimistic. "One thing that needs to be made clear is that TSU and JSU want to play in Memphis and the Southern Heritage Classic," said Jones.
The Southern Heritage Classic is scheduled for September 18th.