Southern University, Human Jukebox
AAMU Marching Maroon

ESPN’s HBCU National Band Titles: Drumline Meets College Football Playoff

The new HBCU Band National Championships from ESPN are somewhere between The College Football Playoff and Drumline.

Four elite HBCU bands will head to Atlanta this December to compete for national championships under the lights. Sounds familiar, right?

The premise of this new event may sound like something straight out of the movie Drumline, but it’s actually happening this year.

ESPN Events is putting together the event on Friday, December 15 in Mercedes-Benz Stadium to run just ahead of the Cricket Wireless Celebration Bowl. Champions will be named in both Division I and Division II. 

Most of the big HBCU band events are showcases without any declared winner. That won’t be the case with this event. It will be a true competition with a declared winner — just like the movie. John Grant, the executive director of the Celebration Bowl and driving force behind the event says it’s not quite a movie come to life. It’s more like a marching band version of another event in the college football world. 

“It’s very similar, if you think about the college football playoffs,” Grant said in a recent interview with BCSN Sportswrap. “You have a committee of professionals who are experts and they are using their expert evaluation on a regular basis, so it’s neutral. And we want to make sure that this is a neutral evaluation and based on the objective criteria that the committee develops. Because the committee will develop that criteria by which they will adjudicate.”

Grant made it clear that this is not a battle of the bands or a showcase. As with the college football playoff, a champion will be crowned (in two divisions).

“This is not an invitation. You can’t be invited. It’s not a showcase. It’s not just to have you there to exhibit. You’re there to compete. And you’re there to win. This is a band of the year competition,” Grant said. “You have to earn your way here.”

The event will be broadcast on an ESPN platform and will be simulcast on

Here are four other things to know about the event. 

HBCU bands will be rewarded financially

There will be a payout to the competing bands, Grant said on the show. However, he’s not quite ready to expound on how much that payout will be.

“Based on how these conversations we’re having with sponsors that are interested, that number could even be enhanced, based on what some of them are wanting to do. So I’d rather not say that at this point until it’s all worked out. And when we give a number, it’s a number everyone will know that they can count on.”

HBCU Marching Bands, WSSU, ESPN

Division II bands were always in the plan

The event that follows the band championship, the Celebration Bowl, is a game that matches up the champions from the two Division I HBCU conferences — the MEAC and SWAC. Most of the larger and well-known HBCU bands belong to schools that are in Division I. So how did Division II schools get included?

Grant says that was part of the plan from the beginning. 

“We never even conceived without it. If you look at how we’ve been ranking the bands since 2017, the Division IIs were included in that from the beginning,” Grant said. “So it was never any doubt in our mind at all that this would not be inclusive of the HBCU family.”

He says it’s about including as many HBCUs as possible. 

“We all are a part of a connected network. And that network includes whether you are a MEAC, SWAC or CIAA and SIAC and others that are in those categories. It was always our intent to make sure that we were bringing everyone together around a form of championship for something that’s common to all of us, and that’s music.”

North Carolina A&T, HBCU Bands, ESPN, College Football Playoff
The national band championships will be broadcast on ESPN platforms. (Steven J. Gaither/HBCU Gameday photo)

HBCU conference affiliation doesn’t matter

The completion is conference neutral, meaning that teams outside of HBCU conferences (CIAA,MEAC, SIAC and SWAC) will be eligible as well. That includes North Carolina A&T’s Blue and Gold Marching Machine, Hampton University’s Marching Force and Tennessee State University’s Aristocrat of Bands. 

“We have a committee of experts. And that committee —  independent of conferences, etc. — they will be the ones that will be conducting the adjudication of the performances and when they produce their evaluation, those will be used. So the conferences won’t have any specific engagement in how those rankings are produced.”

Grambling Southern
NEW ORLEANS, LA – NOVEMBER 24: during the 45th annual State Farm Bayou Classic game between the Southern Jaguars and the Grambling State Tigers on Saturday November 24, 2018 at the Mercedes-Benz Super Dome in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire)

Performances will count — but not all of them 

Unlike the college football playoff, Grant says that not all performances will be judged. The number four was thrown around, but doesn’t appear to be set in stone just yet.

“It could be less —  might be three — but it won’t be more, I don’t believe,” Grant said. “The committee will assess all of that.” 

Fans will be able to keep up with which band contests count via a schedule on ESPN.

“We’re going to actually put out a schedule — just like a football schedule. So people will know and be able to follow. Fans will be able to follow which of these performances are a part of the schedule and the adjudication process.”

The SWAC Championship Game and Bayou Classic will not be a part of that schedule as the cutoff date will be set sometime in mid-November. That’s to give the bands that will be competing time to get prepared for the big show. 

ESPN’s HBCU National Band Titles: Drumline Meets College Football Playoff
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