It's a week before the big event, a Saturday night, and the two top honchos are working overtime on opposite sides of town to get the word out.
At the Congressional Black Caucus gala at the Washington Convention Center, Mike Little, president of Prince George's Classic Inc., dapper in black tie, schmoozed with executives from a Fortune 500 company over spicy shrimp salad, roast beef and petit fours.
The "classic" football game, its organizers said, was about to put Prince George's County on the map, and Little was eager to familiarize the well-heeled gala guests, including many of the county's prominent citizens and elected officials, with its significance.
"Mr. Wynn!" Little said, approaching U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.) minutes before Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry took to the stage to deliver the keynote speech. Before he left, Little also made sure to chat up County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and local business owners and civic leaders.
A dozen miles away, in Lanham, the event's co-founder, Hubert "Petey" Green, president of the Prince George's County Black Chamber of Commerce, held court at the first of several local events associated with the Prince George's Classic, a dinner and fashion show at La Fontaine Bleu banquet hall. As guests feasted on roast beef, stuffed flounder and chicken sauteed in basil cream sauce and sun-dried tomatoes, and admired the creations of Columbia designer Yassie, Green worked the room, urging residents to attend the classic and business owners to sign on as sponsors of the event next year.
"It was a fabulous evening, one of the best-produced fashion shows I've ever attended," said Green, who emceed the fashion show and used the evening to solicit support for the other upcoming events. "We had a very nice crowd."
You may have heard of the Bayou Classic, the Turkey Day Classic or the Circle City Classic -- each of them big annual football games between two historically black colleges.
Now there's the Prince George's Classic, a new athletic, social and cultural event that Little and Green hope will further shine the spotlight on the county and all it has to offer.
In an attempt to promote and tap into the education and affluence of Prince George's black population, the two men and their staff of six have organized a matchup between Howard University and Mississippi's Alcorn State University at FedEx Field. The game, scheduled for 4 p.m. Saturday, is the featured event, but organizers are touting a host of related events, including a golf tournament tomorrow at the Lake Arbor Golf Club and a band competition tomorrow night at Cole Field House on the University of Maryland campus. The weekend also features a post-game rhythm-and-blues concert at the D.C. Armory with Angela Winbush and the Gap Band, and a black college expo Saturday morning, both of which are expected to draw thousands of people.
The game will be preceded by a fancy tailgate party inside the stadium, with catered fare and a concert with Marcus Johnson, Raheem DeVaughn and Fertile Ground, organizers said. The game will be televised to more than 25,000,000 homes over 20 television networks, Little said. Tickets range from $25 for end-zone seats, including parking, to $125 for the VIP package, which includes the tailgate party, club level seats and parking.
"We've actually mapped things out so that we have something for everybody in the community, from kids to seniors," said Little, a board member of the Prince George's Black Chamber of Commerce, which is hosting the game.
Dreams Come True
The Prince George's Classic is the culmination of years of dreaming by the two local business owners and civic leaders. Little, 46, president of B&W Solutions of Oxon Hill, which contracts with federal agencies to do human resources work, and Green, president of the Community and Business Relations Corp. of Oxon Hill, were interested in founding a phenomenon -- a social and cultural event that would elevate the county to national prominence, as well as bring in big dollars and serve as a boon to local businesses.
"This event will cement the elevation of Prince George's County as a major destination of the region and country," said Wynn, who wrote a letter of support for the event.
Speaking at the Congressional Black Caucus gala Saturday night, Wynn, like others, said that Prince George's County is an untapped resource where economic development will burgeon in the near future. "This is a chance to let people know what great economic development opportunities are available and what a great place it is generally."
Johnson, the county executive, who also wrote a letter of support, said at the gala that the three-day Prince George's Classic weekend will significantly bolster business for local hotels and restaurants, as well as community pride.
"This is one of the greatest opportunities we've had for getting people in the community to feel the spirit of living in the community," said Johnson, a graduate of Howard University Law School. "For African Americans, getting together around a big event, like homecoming or a reunion, is always important. This is like homecoming for older adults. They get to come back to their colleges or participate in the event, even though they didn't attend one of these schools, for the pure enjoyment of the event."
A Showcase for the County
Initially, Little, of Fort Washington, and Green, of Clinton, considered a football doubleheader, but that idea was soon scrapped. Then, a few years ago, they began pondering the popularity and historical significance of other "classic" football games such the Circle City Classic in Indianapolis and the Bayou Classic, held every Thanksgiving week in New Orleans.
The games, which feature historically black colleges and universities and include events such as gospel concerts and step shows, would be the perfect vehicle to lift the profile of Prince George's by establishing another black community tradition, Green said.
"Prince George's County has absolutely nothing that we can claim on the national level to be our own," Green said. "The Redskins market themselves as the Washington Redskins. People who are watching television across the country most of the time don't even realize that they are located in Prince George's County. If we can have a successful classic, it is something that will showcase our community nationally."
So that's what Little and Green set out to do. They started by hiring RESI Consulting & Research of Towson University to do an economic impact analysis, which showed that the event could generate as much as $15 million in state revenue if it drew at least 50,000 people.
A look at the local demographics by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and the Prince George's County Conference and Visitors Bureau excited them further: The county is located within the fourth-largest consumer market in the country and the fifth-richest retail market, and its effective buying income is ranked seventh in the country.
Additionally, the commission's demographics showed that the county and surrounding area are home to a population of 1.5 million African Americans -- including more than 550,000 within Prince George's. The county's median income is more than $62,000 per year, making it the most affluent majority-black county in the United States.
"The area also has a huge number of graduates of historically black colleges and universities," Little said. "And there are more than 20 HBCUs within a 400-mile radius, including Howard, Bowie State, Coppin State, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Morgan State. This event would draw from that base as well."
With their statistics in hand, Little and Green approached the chamber to offer themselves as hosts of a Prince George's Classic, then they sought out government officials to gauge their support for such an event.
"We knew we'd have to have business and politicians on board for it to be a success," Little said. "The response was overwhelming."
They received letters of support from Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) and County Council Chairman Tony Knotts, as well as Wynn and Johnson.
"I am aware of similar events around the country like the Classic, and their success stories," Steele wrote to event organizers. "As evidenced by the economic impact they have had in their communities, I have full confidence that Prince George's County is the perfect location for a cultural event of this magnitude to flourish. Furthermore, I am equally excited about the strong sense of community pride this event will generate. The Classic will be the start of a great and long-lasting tradition."
Done. Organizers signed a contract with the Washington Redskins in December to allow the event to be held at FedEx Field. They were granted permission to use the stadium rent-free, a concession seldom granted by professional teams during the football season.
"Mr. Snyder was great," Little said of Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder. "He said this was just the sort of event they had been looking for in the community. They are quiet about it, but they support quite a lot of activities in the community. They have built football fields at four county high schools. They indicated that this was a way they could continue that work."
With the contract signed in December, the clock began to tick.
There were sponsors to sign, teams to contract and details to work out. Little and Green reached out to Howard University to serve as the host school. Their plan to have former Redskins quarterback Doug Williams bring his Grambling Tigers to the event was sidelined after Williams left the school to take an National Football League front office job. After more reaching out, Alcorn State University signed on in May as the rival team.
Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair, a graduate of Alcorn, has helped to publicize the event. Major sponsors include the state of Maryland, Federal Express, Southwest Airlines, Comcast and Radio One. Comcast is showing commercials advertising the event and Radio One's WKYS-FM (93.9) will broadcast live from tomorrow night's battle of the bands, featuring marching bands from Howard and Alcorn, as well as local high schools Largo, Crossland and Oxon Hill. The marching band from Ballou High School in the District is also slated to participate. WMMJ-FM (102.3) is hosting the tailgate party.
Spreading the Word
The Prince George's Classic has come to fruition inside the B&W Solutions office in Oxon Hill. On a recent morning, staff members scurried about, finishing last-minute details. A conference room held souvenirs and giveaways, including footballs signed by Williams and McNair.
Neither Green nor Little had any experience managing sports events when they came up with their idea. The initial assistance came from an executive with the Orange Bowl whom Little met attending a golf tournament in Florida sponsored by Black Enterprise magazine. The two men also sought assistance from executives with several other classics, including the Southern Heritage Classic in Memphis and the Circle City Classic.
"We attended several of the classics, then approached the organizers to find out how they put them together, what went well and what went wrong initially," Little said. "Some of the classics have been going on for many years, and we were able to determine some of the things that had helped them be successful over the long term."
Learning what went wrong and how to avoid making the same mistakes was of particular interest to Little and Green, because they want to make their classic a tradition.
"This is going to be an event that is held year after year for many, many years," Little said.
The key, both agree, is getting the word out so that seats will sell.
"The more people attend, the more we can do with sponsors next year and the more word will spread about it through word-of-mouth," Green said. "We need a large turnout to make the first event a success, and that will help carry it next year."
The day after the fashion show, Green spoke to the congregation at Ebenezer AME Church in Temple Hills. On Monday, Little spoke about sports event management and marketing at Howard, where tickets to Saturday's event are selling briskly. They also inspected trophies, settled details about sponsor tickets and paid a $40,000 insurance bill for the football game, the battle of the bands and the golf tournament. The total expenses are about $1.6 million.
"Right now things are pretty much completed and we're fine-tuning," said Keith Arnott, director of event management for the Prince George's Classic. "At some point you have to cut it off and just finalize the details, and that's where we are. We're looking forward to Saturday."
On Tuesday, Little, Green and their staff began to warily eye Hurricane Ivan, which forecasters say may bring significant amounts of rain over the weekend.
"Rain or not, we need people to come out to support this event," Little said. "The success of this event is going to be determined by the number of people who come out."
Organizers said they expect to finish the game in the black. Even more important, they hope to establish a legacy.
"Our commitment is to create something of high quality for the community that Prince Georgians can be proud of and take ownership in," he said. "It gives us the opportunity to promote Prince George's and its unique demographic, not only regionally, but nationally, to corporate America. We want to show the country that Prince George's County is here and open for business."