The Orange Blossom Classic was on the cusp of becoming a fixture in the college football calendar. Two straight years of solid ratings as a standalone game on Labor Day Eve and attendance figures of over 30,000 in its first two iterations meant a bright future for the Miami HBCU classic until Florida A&M announced they would not renew their contract with the classic. Rattlers’ athletic director, Tiffany Dawn-Sykes turned down the Orange Blossom Classic’s offer to pay $450,000 in 2024, $500,000 in 2025, and $525,000 in 2026.
While the move seems shocking as the Orange Blossom Classic gave a lucrative offer and ESPN’s television deal runs through 2026, Sykes’ decision is reasonable. Sykes’ cited a desire to keep more games at home. A deeper look shows how much the Rattlers sacrifice in participating in the Orange Blossom Classic.
Tallahassee is seven hours away from Miami, significantly reducing the amount of students and devoted locals that can make the Orange Blossom Classic. In years where the Florida Classic against Bethune-Cookman is a Rattler home game, like in 2021, Florida A&M has only four home games in Tallahassee. Add future appearances in Atlanta’s MEAC-SWAC Kickoff to the equation and Florida A&M fans are traveling and giving up home games at an alarming rate.
As a result, the Orange Blossom Classic must move forward without Florida A&M since the FDR administration. The Orange Blossom Classic may take a national or wild-card approach like the Chicago Football Classic and Circle City Classic, but if they choose to pick a replacement within the Sunshine State, they have three options.
Bethune-Cookman can intensify an already heated rivalry by replacing their Florida Classic rivals and have a solid argument to do so. Daytona Beach is much closer to Miami than Tallahassee at four hours away. The Cougars also do not have any future appearances in the MEAC-SWAC Challenge through 2026.
However, two factors work against the Wildcats, recent success and relatively low home attendance. Bethune-Cookman averaged 6,714 fans per game in 2022, enough to fill roughly 70% of their 9,600-seat stadium. In comparison, Florida A&M averaged 14,418 fans per home game. Wildcat fans do travel well to the Florida Classic. Over 54,000 fans attended the game in 2021. (Attendance figures for 2022 are unavailable as of this writing).
Bethune-Cookman’s participation may drop national interest in the game. Unlike their cross-state rivals, the Wildcats have struggled to adjust to SWAC life, going 4-18 in their first two seasons in the SWAC. However, they are the best option geographically and have the next largest HBCU fan base in Florida.
The Orange Blossom Classic has a potential replacement right in its backyard at Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens. However, the benefits of Florida Memorial playing in the Orange Blossom Classic stop there. Florida Memorial has a low enrollment with 1800 students, meaning alumni turnout will be low. Despite reviving itself after an over half-century hiatus, the Lions averaged only 1274 fans per home game in 2022, twice drawing below 700 fans. Florida Memorial feels like a last resort as any non-Florida HBCU likely draws better attendance figures than them.
The Orange Blossom Classic could provide an outstanding opportunity for exposure for Florida Memorial, an opportunity they likely otherwise would never get. Additionally, the money the Orange Blossom Classic would give them could elevate the program substantially. That alone is a reason to give Florida Memorial a chance in the Orange Blossom Classic.
The Edward Waters University Tigers are on an upward trajectory, recently joining the SIAC. A spot in the Orange Blossom Classic could continue that. The university calls Jacksonville home, a city two hours closer to Miami than Tallahassee. The Tigers offer an opportunity to invite HBCU brand names such as Tuskegee, Clark Atlanta, and Morehouse to Miami.
Nonetheless, Edward Waters is a private institution with an even smaller enrollment than Florida Memorial with only 1,025 students. Additionally, as a new member of the SIAC by way of the NAIA, they do not offer the brand name recognition as the other football-playing members of the conference or even other SIAC/CIAA schools who have played in the Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic on NFL Network, such as Central State and Winston Salem State.
The Tigers have an instate rivalry with Florida Memorial, the Big Cat Classic, usually played during Week Zero. Moving the Orange Blossom Classic up to Week Zero and keeping it on a Sunday could give the classic both a rivalry to lean on and prime real estate as even more of a standalone game than it already is.
The Orange Blossom Classic has plenty of in-state options for future editions of the classic, but it is likely none have the drawing power that Florida A&M had for the classic. As a result, the classic may need to adapt to life without any schools in the Sunshine State.