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Friday, May 16, 2014

Invisible Baton

Courtesy of Macy's, Inc.
A lot of wheeling and dealing has taken place in the land/TV market/money grab that is conference realignment, but I'll admit that not even I saw the manner that marching bands could be used towards staking a claim. And yet, I believe that that's taking place now as two conferences with their eyes set on New York City push their agendas through perhaps the most unlikely medium: The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Participants for the 2015 parade were just announced, and in the field are the University of Virginia Cavalier Marching Band and the Marching Illini of the University of Illinois. There's no controversy or conspiracy here. College bands participate in Macy's all the time. But when you look at it in context, it looks just a little too coincidental.

Looking back to 2007 (as far back as I could find accurate parade lineups) never did more than two college bands participate. In 2015, the number balloons to four, as UVA and Illinois are joined by Stephen F. Austin and West Chester. Illinois and UVA also represent just a handful of bands from college football's highest level to participate. In 2010, Purdue boasts the Big Ten's first and to date only Macy's Parade participant in the All-American Marching Band. Georgia Tech of the ACC marched in 2008, and in the only other year that included two bands from major conferences, 2007, both the Pride of Oklahoma and Virginia Tech's Highty-Tighties (the Corps of Cadets' regimental band, not the Marching Virginians, the primarily athletics-focused spirit band) marched. Even so, both of those appointments had a prescribed reason: Virginia Tech had undergone tragedy the previous April in its campus shootings, while the state of Oklahoma was celebrating its centennial.

That major conference Macy's participants have been rare isn't surprising. Thanksgiving sits near the end of the college football season, and is a major weekend of competition for many programs. Further, the few weeks that follow are likely to include band travel for the more successful programs, as conference championships and bowl games are right around the corner. Adding a major Thanksgiving Day parade doesn't emerge as a priority for most, but perhaps staking a claim in NYC makes it a little more attractive. The Big Ten already invited Rutgers in hopes to seize the coveted New York media market; the ACC did the same with Syracuse and the move of the basketball tournament to Brooklyn. Everyone wants a bite of the Big Apple, and both conferences see fit to parade their respective shades of orange and blue down 6th Avenue.

But why Virginia and Illinois? As I mentioned, postseason play may have played a role in the previous reluctance to put bands in to the parade. Those two schools went a combined 1-15 in conference in the season prior to their selection, so while things can change for either program, they were among the safest bets to have a clear dance card. While both schools are scheduled to host their in-state rivals on Thanksgiving weekend - Virginia Tech and Northwestern, respectively - both are typically Saturday contests, so there's no reason the bands couldn't get back to Charlottesville or Urbana-Champaign in time. Both conferences would really show their hands if the schools were mysteriously playing Syracuse and Rutgers in the final week of the regular season, but I don't expect to see that.

Meanwhile, Macy's is arguably America's most famous parade, and certainly the most famous that one can be invited to without the actions of the football team, noting that the other such parade is the Rose Parade, and no major conference band is getting an invite their without their team playing in the Rose Bowl. Their participation not only gets them to New York, but puts them in the hearts and minds of millions who may be watching more prominent football games later in the day.

I don't know the degree to which John Swofford, Jim Delany, or their respective league offices puppetmastered this participation. It may have been as simple as encouraging both bands to apply, or active negotiations with the Macy's parade team, but I'm relatively confident that there was involvement from the conference level - too much points to it. It's not conspiracy, it's creative, and perhaps part of the value that having your mitts on NYC brings. Let's see if this continues into the 2016 parade and beyond.
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