CINCINNATI -- The buzz surrounding the annual intracity showdown between Xavier University and the University of Cincinnati returned to the Queen City Thursday night.
A VIP kickoff event for the recently-rebranded Crosstown Classic was held at the Skyline Chili on Fourth Street in downtown.
The mascots slapped hands, the cheerleaders for both schools did their best to show school spirit, and the fans in attendance gorged on cheese coneys and excitement for Saturday’s contest at U.S. Bank Arena.
Several fans walked away with prizes, including basketballs, T-shirts and gift cards. One lucky fan won tickets to the 8 p.m. contest and a gift basket filled with basketball-centric goodies.
“These are the two major schools in the city and we consider ourselves the city’s chili so it only makes sense for us to be part of it,” said Sarah Sicking, director of marketing for Skyline.
The invitation-only event was a way for select fans and members of the schools' athletic departments to come together to support the high-profile game, which was first played in 1927. It has been played every year since 1946.
ESPN's Jay Bilas was quoted as saying, "Cincinnati and Xavier have created a rivalry that is unparalleled when it comes to outright passion and civic division."
Bilas' ESPN colleague Myron Medcalf echoed that sentiment in an article in 2012 , where he highlighted the rivalry in part because of the role the game plays in filling the sporting gap in the calendar for Tri-State sports junkies.
"This is it for Cincinnati sports fans during the gap that follows the end of the Bengals' season and the start of spring training for the Reds. The NBA left town in the 1970s. So locals get their hoops fix from its premier college programs," he wrote.
Medcalf referenced a local TV station "refusing to interrupt" coverage of what was then called the Crosstown Shootout to broadcast the 1990 State of the Union address.
"Even the president can't come between this true rivalry," he wrote.
Due to the intensity of the rivalry and the amount of civic pride associated with the game, Skyline has hosted the kickoff event for at least the past 15 years, Sicking said. The local chain has participated in the Crosstown rivalry game in various capacities for three decades.
During Thursday's event, Xavier coach Chris Mack and UC coach Mick Cronin took the stage to answer select questions from fans at participating Skyline locations.
With local media members, the coaches addressed but mostly avoided questions about the future of the game, namely when, where and if the series would be played in the future.
The game has a special meaning for both Mack and Cronin, who were once students at the respective schools they now lead.
“Everything that goes on with the game makes it special,” said Cronin, who also mentioned the alumni game and the showdown between the teams’ student managers as events he looks forward to every year.
“Those extra elements make a great game that much more special and it’s a reason a lot of people enjoy it. It’s great for the city,” he said.
While Cronin playfully remarked that the lead-in events are “just more stuff (he) has to deal with,” he said they add up to a “small price to pay for being part of a great event in our city.”
In addition to the build-up to the game, the VIP event also benefited the community.
Both the game and the event benefit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which shares a riverfront location with the arena where this year’s game is taking place.
Skyline representatives handed over a check for $1,000. The amount was doubled thanks to a private donation from the Pepper family, Sicking said.
The company also presented $500 checks to both cheer squads.
The Freedom Center served as the host of a press conference on June 14, 2012, where the schools announced the name of the game was changed to the "Skyline Chili Crosstown Classic."
Sicking said, “Skyline, the Freedom Center and the two universities are important Cincinnati institutions and it’s great that we can all come together for this event."