2024 signifies a major change in the storied legacy of the Orange Blossom Classic football game. Since its inception in 1933, the Classic has always featured the Florida A&M Rattlers against another HBCU opponent. The game was a staple from 1933 until 1978, when the event was discontinued. In 2021, OBC Executive Director Kendra Bulluck-Major revitalized the Classic with three straight years of high-octane matchups between Florida A&M and Jackson State. Although Bulluck-Major, a North Carolina native, hails from HBCU heritage through her mother and sister, she noticed the lack of HBCU presence in South Florida when her family moved to Miami.

“A lot of it had to do with my background growing up,” she said about why she wanted to revamp the OBC. “As I began to learn more about the Orange Blossom Classic and the historical relevance of what it means to the community for so many years, I thought it would be really good for some of our younger kids or this current generation to grow up with what I grew up with.”

However, for the first time in the OBC's history, the game will not feature Florida's largest HBCU. Instead, two new challengers step up to the plate: North Carolina Central and Alabama State. The game will still take place at Hard Rock Stadium, the home of the Miami Dolphins, in Miami Gardens.

When FAMU agreed to participate in the OBC again, the school had not yet switched from the MEAC to the SWAC. By scheduling Jackson State as the opponent, Bulluck-Major wanted to create another MEAC/SWAC Challenge. Instead, FAMU switched to the SWAC, and a fun, light-hearted opener to the season turned into an early battle for conference positioning.

Unfortunately for OBC fans, the Rattlers are coming off of their most successful season in recent history. FAMU went undefeated in conference play, defeated Prairie View A&M for the SWAC Championship, and came back against Howard to win the Celebration Bowl. Although a lot of key pieces for the Rattlers are gone, there is still considerable intrigue as to how they would respond. Instead of starting its season with the OBC, Florida A&M will play Norfolk State in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge on ABC.

Bulluck-Major decided, then, to pursue a previous Celebration Bowl Champion, and a member of the Magic City Classic, an event that hosted nearly 70,000 in-person fans in 2023.

“What really goes into selecting the universities is, what is going to be a draw,” Bulluck-Major said. “What do fans want to see? How are they performing on the field? How do they perform overall, just with the fan base… With these two new opponents, we're moving back into what was originally that SWAC matchup, looking at how they excelled and led in their conference. When we started talking to North Carolina Central as far back as 2022, Central was leading the MEAC. They had just come off of their championship victory in the 2022 Celebration Bowl. So we look again at where those conferences, where they rank within their conference, where they rank within attendance, and how they're going to possibly show out in the stands. And of course, how their fan base and how our audience is going to respond.”

Bulluck-Major and her team struck gold in the team selection process when they first brought back the OBC. Originally, they targeted Jackson State because the Tigers led the FCS in attendance. They did not know, however, that a Deion Sanders-sized bomb was on its way to Mississippi's capital city.

“When we originally selected Jackson State, we actually had that in the works prior to him coming onboard… It was different. We've dealt with a lot of coaches, but it's nothing like dealing with Coach Prime, and he comes with a lot of his own publicity that kind of just propelled the Orange Blossom Classic into the spotlight. One of the things that we were fortunate about was number one, when he came on in 2021, as the head coach of Jackson State, this was off of the revival year. There were a lot of eyes on this game, not just because of the Deion factor, but because we were coming off of the pandemic, so we were kind of trying to reimagine what football was going to look like… On top of that, we had the Deion Sanders piece. He has a strong voice and what he was able to do during his time in Jackson State was shine a light on what we've always known, and that is that HBCUs are great.”

As the OBC heads into a future without its longtime partner in FAMU and the Deion Sanders-led Jackson State, many would assume a drop off in interest. To an extent, that is correct. The 2023 OBC drew in 438,000 viewers on television, a steep decline from the 958,000 viewers of the 2022 game. Even through all the changes, however, ESPN is still confident in Bulluck-Major and the Orange Blossom Classic. The game worked its way from ESPN2 to the main ESPN network in its first few years, and, in 2024, it will continue to remain on the main channel.

“ESPN really understands the value, I believe, of amplifying the HBCU space and the HBCU culture, and specifically HBCU football,” Bulluck-Major said. “Having that partnership gives our student-athletes a chance to have exposure that they may not have otherwise. Two years, we were featured on ESPN2; year three, they moved us up to ESPN to the main network, and year four will continue to be on the ESPN main network. The fact that we've been able to not only maintain that relationship, but continue to extend that partnership and then at the same time keep that viewership where they're pleased enough to say we're going to keep on you on the main network, I think speaks a lot about not only the product we put out, but the institutions that we select to be a part of this game.”

In just a few years, Bulluck-Major and her team have already created a product that vies for attention on ESPN's national channel. Their goal, however, doesn't stop there.

“If I was going to say where I would want this to be by 2030, I think that would be, number one, it doesn't matter who's playing in the game,” Bulluck-Major said. “Everybody just already knows that Labor Day weekend, Miami Gardens, South Florida is where we need to be. So it becomes a household name, synonymous with HBCU culture and synonymous with HBCU classics, just like you have those traditional classics such as the Bayou Classic and the Magic City Classic. The goal is that we'll ultimately continue to be mentioned in those conversations as one of those traditional, long-standing events.”