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Durham wins bid for CIAA football title game, another step to make Bull City a 'championship hub'

This photo from 2017 shows Winston-Salem State playing against Shaw in football at Bowman Gray Stadium.
WSSU Photography
via Flickr
This photo from 2017 shows Winston-Salem State playing against Shaw in football at Bowman Gray Stadium.

For the past three years, the city of Durham has hosted the college football championship for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).

Now, another gridiron title game is coming to Bull City.

Durham won the bid to host the football championship for the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), an NCAA Division II conference made up of member programs that are from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The CIAA was founded in 1912 and is the first — and longest running — HBCU athletic conference in the U.S.

The CIAA football championship will be played at Durham County Memorial Stadium for three consecutive years, from 2025 through 2027. Durham was awarded the bid over Charlotte — where the conference is headquartered — and Salem, Virginia, which has hosted the title game for the past seven years.

Kaila’Shea Menendez is the Deputy Director for the Durham Sports Commission. She believes Durham is a great fit for the event because of its connection to HBCUs.

“The CIAA is one of the most recognized conferences in college athletics,” Menendez told WUNC. “Durham has a lot of rich history, particularly around African Americans and minorities. And so, we certainly felt that it was a great fit with several HBCUs that are around this Triangle area, and really in North Carolina.”

In awarding the bid to Durham, the CIAA Board of Directors considered many factors, including facility use and staffing, team support, opportunities for community engagement, and involvement of the local business community, according to a news release distributed last week.

Durham previously hosted the CIAA football championship from 2008 through 2012, and in 2014 and 2015. Menendez said those games regularly drew about 7,200 fans per game.

“We’re centrally located to CIAA institutions,” Menendez said. “I think Durham is a little bit more of a draw for CIAA fans. … From a cultural perspective, we really felt like holding the CIAA championships in Durham was the perfect fit.”

CIAA-member Shaw University, based in Raleigh, plays its regular season football and soccer games at Memorial Stadium. The CIAA track-and-field championships were hosted there for the past two years and will call the venue home again in 2025. Menendez hopes those championships will remain in Durham as well.

Virginia Union University defeated Fayetteville State University in the 2023 CIAA football championship in Salem, Virginia. Other football-playing CIAA members in North Carolina include Elizabeth City State, Johnson C. Smith (Charlotte), Livingstone College (Salisbury), and Winston-Salem State.

One local CIAA member – Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh – will not sponsor a football program for at least this upcoming season as it endures a financial crisis and accreditation issues.

Durham-based North Carolina Central University was a member of the CIAA until 2007, then moved to NCAA Division I and joined the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

Making Durham a ‘championship hub’

A referee works the down marker at the 2023 NAIA football championship at Memorial Stadium in Durham on Dec. 18, 2023.
Durham County Goverment
via Flickr
A referee works the down marker at the 2023 NAIA football championship at Memorial Stadium in Durham on Dec. 18, 2023.

Winning the bid to host the CIAA football title game is just the latest building block for the Durham Sports Commission in its goal to make the Bull City into what Menendez calls a “championship hub” for sports.

“This is just another opportunity for us to showcase an all-star venue,” Menendez said. “That's just minutes away from lodging and restaurants and everything that makes (Durham) so unique.”

In addition to the NAIA football championship and the CIAA track-and-field championships, Durham has also held championships for NCAA Division I field hockey and fencing in recent years. The field hockey championships will return in 2025, and Durham — in partnership with Duke University — submitted a bid to host the fencing championships again in 2027. The Durham Bulls Athletic Park will also host the ACC baseball tournament in 2025, 2027 and 2029. Durham has also held other sports championships for the high school level.

And in 2029, Durham will be part of North Carolina hosting the World University Games, where more than 7,000 athletes from about 150 countries will compete in competitions across the Triangle and Triad regions.

Menendez says that Durham aims to do more with emerging sports too.

“We’ve talked a lot about flag football, women’s wrestling,” Menendez said. “Those are two sports we would love to get to Durham.”

Mitchell Northam is a Digital Producer for WUNC. His past work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SB Nation, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and is also a voter in the AP Top 25 poll for women's college basketball.
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