Since 2014, the Bahamas Bowl has cemented itself as a fun staple of bowl season, with teams from Conference USA and the MAC traveling to the small Caribbean island which is not known for its affinity for football. Not too far away, another island is a prime candidate to enter the Caribbean football party.
Last weekend, West Virginia State, Clinton, Tusculum, Kentucky State, Edward Waters, and Virginia State competed in the YES U.S. Virgin Islands Classic HBCU Basketball Tournament. West Virginia State took the title when they beat Tusculum 73-59 in the championship game. Additionally, in 2023, the University of the Virgin Islands will join the NAIA’s Gulf Coast Athletic Conference, the NAIA’s lone HBCU conference. HBCU sports and culture is alive and well in the Virgin Islands. All that’s missing is some HBCU football.
The University of the Virgin Islands does not have a football team, but there are four HBCUs in Florida with football teams. Everyone knows about Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M, but Edward Waters of Jacksonville also plays at the Division II level and Florida Memorial of Miami plays in the NAIA. Travel is easiest for those schools so they are the likeliest candidates to move a game to the US Virgin Islands.
It may be difficult to ask Bethune Cookman or Florida A&M to give up a home game to travel to the Caribbean, but that may not be the case with Florida Memorial and Edward Waters. For the past two seasons, the two schools have opened the season against each other in the Big Cat Classic.
The rivalry may be young due to Florida Memorial only having three seasons under its belt after returning from a 61-year hiatus, but it has intensity. This season, Florida Memorial hosted the Big Cat Classic and with an attendance of 2739, it doubled the attendance of every other Florida Memorial home game and quadrupled the total of two other home games. Both programs are on the rise with Edward Waters running back Tyler King winning MVP of the nationally-televised HBCU Pigskin Showdown on December 17.
With the rivalry growing in popularity, it is easy to imagine a solid traveling party of fans from both schools. The biggest question regarding an HBCU Classic in the US Virgin Islands would be the stadium. Bethlehem Soccer Stadium in St. Croix is a brand new facility, opening in 2019, but its capacity would be a concern, as it holds only 1200 fans. The opposite is true of Lionel Roberts Field, which seats 9,000, but is not only considerably older, but is a baseball stadium with poor sightlines for football.
A Big Cat Classic in the US Virgin Islands would likely draw closer to 1,200 fans, making Bethlehem Stadium adequate. The smaller capacity allows for both schools to have a smaller ticket allotment reducing the chance of losing money. The two schools averaged 1442 fans per home game in 2022, so the smaller the ticket allotment, the better.
Neutral site HBCU Classics are alive and well today, with many schools vying for spots in prestigious classics. This was on full display as Arkansas Pine-Bluff stepped into Memphis’ Southern Heritage Classic after Jackson State opted out amid controversy. An HBCU Classic in the US Virgin Islands would immediately become one of the most unique, if not the most unique on the circuit. Furthermore, it would give two underexposed teams the classic experience that so many HBCUs desire.