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Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Battle of the Battles


There is an HBCU battle of the bands, sponsored by the American arm of a Japanese automaker, taking place in an NFL stadium with a retractable roof, in a major southern city with a significant HBCU presence.

I must be talking about the National Battle of the Bands, sponsored by Toyota.

Wait what?

Following a (lamentable, in my North Carolinian opinion) move from Charlotte the Queen City Battle of the Bands rebranded as the National Battle of the Bands and found a home in Houston's NRG Stadium. Its positioning at the beginning of the football/marching season makes it a logical foil to Honda's late January tradition. But with a few major sponsorships and momentum on its side - with all due respect to Atlantan and former Honda Battle of the Bands performer Ludacris - they're coming for the #1 spot.

Since its inception in 2003 - in the wake of Drumline's fictional Big Southern Classic - the Honda Battle of the Bands has been the premier HBCU battle. Make no mistake, it still is, and hasn't yet been dethroned, but The Toyota (no one calls it that - yet) just so happened to emerge amid a series of challenges in Atlanta that have led to just one Honda since 2018; in 2019, the Super Bowl being held in a then-new Mercedes-Benz stadium caused a "scheduling conflict" with the Honda; it returned for 2020, but we lost the 2021 and 2022  contests to the pandemic. The National Battle of the Bands, in contrast, happened to thread the needle between summer 2021's declaration of "outside" and the omicron variant such that it's the most recent battle on our minds, and in doing so, garnered new sponsors in Toyota - oh, and Pepsi, in case a foil was needed to Atlanta's Coca-Cola. 

If the energy is indeed shifting from the A to the East Texas bayou, it isn't happening in a vacuum. Back in 2016, Black Enterprise declared Houston "America's next great Black business mecca," a title most would currently attribute to Atlanta. Much as Atlanta has long been associated with its HBCU presence, so has Houston - indeed, with Texas Southern and Prairie View sharing the metro area, greater Houston is the only metro to boast two HBCUs with a population of 8,000 or greater. 

But Houston's rise  feels like something else we've seen, coincidentally also involving Atlanta: The move of the College Football Hall of Fame from South Bend to Atlanta was an allegory for the sport's power shifting to the SEC. In HBCU sports and marching, the balance of power - conference power, certainly - is shifting to the more western of the Division I conferences. The SWAC has grown with the addition of FAMU and Bethune-Cookman, while the MEAC lost not only those schools, but Hampton, A&T, and soon possibly Howard to the Big South and the Colonial. While all the schools' locations remain unchanged, the company they keep is taking an occidental tilt. And after years of the SWAC's western schools taking the hike to the Honda, they now have a major battle on their home turf.

All indications are that the Honda will return in 2023, bookending a marching season kicked off on Houston. May the battles battle.

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