Years ago, I wrote a column comparing parts of the college football recruiting process to the world’s oldest profession. A fan of college football and Blaxploitation films, I faithfully watched “The Mack” for the nth time. My jaw dropped when I began drawing similarities between what Goldie told his women and some of the things that go down on the recruiting trail.
Fast-forward five years, and I’m having a discussion with a friend regarding the future of HBCU athletics. We agreed that things must change sooner rather than later.
I don’t prescribe to the whoa-is-me, the-black-schools-are-dying motif that some float out there. I believe there is an opportunity out there for HBCU athletic departments — namely Division I HBCU athletic departments — to do something mutually beneficial to the bottom line.
And that’s when a certain scene from another Blaxploitation came to mind: the counsel scene from “Willie Dynamite.”
If you’re not familiar with the movie and those six minutes and thirty-eight seconds, here’s a brief, sanitized snapshot of what went down:
- A group of “gentlemen” convene, discussing their problems.
- The group makes fun of one of the members.
- The most-senior member of the group urges them to get their stuff together.
- The group agrees that everyone else (other than them) has their business together while the problems they suffer get worse.
- It is suggested that the group combines efforts to maximize resources while protecting their collective interests.
- Willie disagrees with the combined efforts plan, arguing that they are all capitalists and the plan would hurt his individual interests.
The current trend of college expansion on the Football Bowl Subdivision has not been driven by rivalries or geography. Football and the lure of television money shook up the FBS, and the Football Championship Subdivision schools are currently feeling the impact as more programs wrestle with the decision to either stay put in FCS or make plans to move up to FBS. With some uncertainty floating around college football, it is time for the D-I HBCUs to began thinking about contingency plans.
The 22 football-playing HBCU D-I schools — the 11 football-playing Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference members, the 10-school Southwestern Athletic Conference and Tennessee State — currently play in some of FCS’ most highly attended games.
A different statistical view shows the schools draw from a large swath of television markets.
According to the 2016 Nielsen Designated Market Area rankings, the markets the teams played in or will play in this season in conference and postseason account for approximately 27.7 million TV homes — roughly one-fourth of the total TV homes in the country.
When it comes to the schools’ primary market — African-Americans — the markets the teams played in or will play in this season in conference and postseason play account for approximately 6.5 million black TV homes, or nearly 44 percent of America’s black TV homes.
A key thing about those TV statistics is that no D-I HBCU football team will play in the country’s two largest markets, New York and Los Angeles, this season. New York is also the largest market with black TV homes, with its estimated 1.3 million homes accounting for nearly nine percent of the nation’s total black TV homes. Los Angeles is the sixth-largest market for African-Americans, with approximately 480,000 homes making up nearly 3.2 percent of the nation’s total.
In addition, Nielsen’s 2015 African-American Consumer Report shows African-American income growth rates outpaced those of non-Hispanic whites at every annual household income level above $60,000. The report also states the rate of black high school graduates enrolled in college increased in 2014 to 70.9 percent. Many of the larger DMAs the D-I HBCUs play in are the largest with black households earning over $100,000 annually.
With the schools’ primary audience growing and becoming more affluent, an opportunity may present itself for the D-I HBCUs to grow their brands and expand. However, there has to be a plan.
Let’s face it. Football drives college athletics nowadays. However, the entertainment value of HBCU football gives it a niche that remains unmatched by the majority of its Football Championship Subdivision brethren.
The question presents itself as this: how can D-I HBCU football programs maximize on its product for individual schools while growing collectively? Like Bill told Willie Dynamite and the other “gentlemen,” either D-I HBCU football schools “collectivize, or run like a solitary rat.”
Well, the answer could be for certain schools to leave their respective conferences and form their own D-I league. This conference would still draw on the larger rivalries, but also take a note from the FBS leagues and look at gaining footholds in larger TV markets. Taking the schools that play in the larger “classic” games and bringing those bigger games under one umbrella, in theory, could give this league some cache in the event it would negotiate for cable television contracts.
Now some may call it cherry picking, but let’s call it fantasy booking in this case. For the sake of argument, let’s ignore current issues at schools and put a focus on what could be. Besides, this is fantasy booking. We can ignore certain things if we want.
THE MEAC TEAMS
Let’s look at the MEAC. The league’s football-playing members look like this:
||Market rank (overall/black homes)
|North Carolina A&T
|South Carolina State
THE SWAC TEAMS
The SWAC breaks down as follows:
||Market rank (overall/black homes)
|Prairie View A&M
||Little Rock-Pine Bluff
THE OTHER TEAM
Tennessee State is located in the Nashville market, which is 29th both in overall market size and black market size. The school is currently a member of the Ohio Valley Conference.
WHAT TO DO?
For the sake of fantasy booking, let’s take Morgan State, Hampton/Norfolk State, North Carolina Central, North Carolina A&T, Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M out of the MEAC. Secondly, let’s take Prairie View/Texas Southern, Grambling State, Southern, Jackson State and Alabama State out of the SWAC. The third step would be to add Tennessee State. If Tennessee State balks initially, then bring Alabama A&M into the fold.
Those 12 schools have long-established rivalries, along with playing in the majority of the larger HBCU classic games. The schools also feature some of the most loyal and rabid fan bases in FCS. However, there’s one more thing that ties the dozen together: the ability to draw crowds in their home markets and elsewhere. It is that ability that may bring these schools together to pool resources for what some might think is a matter of survival.
The 12-team structure allows for two six-team divisions, which would help defray travel costs. The conference could be divided into eastern and western divisions as follows:
||Alabama A&M or Tennessee State
|Hampton or Norfolk State
|North Carolina Central
|North Carolina A&T
||Prairie View or Texas Southern
The group of 12 schools participates in classic games such as the following:
- Labor Day Classic (Houston): Texas Southern vs. Prairie View
- Southern Heritage Classic (Memphis, Tenn.): Jackson State vs. Tennessee State
- AT&T Nation’s Football Classic (Washington): Howard vs. Hampton
- Chicago Football Classic: Howard vs. Morgan State
- State Fair Classic (Dallas): Grambling State vs. Prairie View
- Magic City Classic (Birmingham, Ala.): Alabama State vs. Alabama A&M
- Red River Classic (Shreveport, La.): Grambling State vs. Texas Southern
- Florida Classic (Orlando, Fla.): FAMU vs. Bethune-Cookman
- Bayou Classic (New Orleans): Southern vs. Grambling State
The new conference could propose games between conference members in markets like New York and Los Angeles in the way the NFL puts on games in international cities like London and Mexico City. The niche in the marketplace this league could possess would give it some caché in regards to TV contracts for FCS conferences.
For those worried about their school getting left out, there is room for them. This group should, and must, look to expanding to 14 teams within five years of the league’s creation. This further expansion should have one eye on geography and another on maximizing the conference’s viewership.
For the sake of argument, let’s look at the original proposed 12-team conference. Two schools in the Eastern Division — Hampton and Norfolk State — are located in the same market, the Norfolk-Portsmouth-Newport News DMA. Meanwhile, Texas Southern and Prairie View are located in the Houston DMA. Tennessee State would have to decide whether to leave the OVC while Alabama A&M would have to decide whether to join other SWAC members in the new league.
The conference initially chooses Hampton, Prairie View and Tennessee State. Since there are four total options in the Norfolk-Portsmouth-Newport News DMA and the Houston DMA, then the decision to choose between Hampton/Norfolk State and Prairie View/Texas Southern may come down to willingness to join, along with other factors.
Tennessee State’s location in the 29th largest market (Nashville DMA), along with its history with other members, makes it a prime candidate for the league. However, the school has declined offers to leave the OVC in the past and that reluctance to leave might make things somewhat problematic for the new league. If Tennessee State declines the initial invitation, then the league should look to add Alabama A&M.
AAMU, despite being in a far smaller market than Tennessee State, has some strategic importance. Adding AAMU gives the new league 100 percent interest in the Magic City Classic.
When it comes time to expand to 14 teams, there will be options for the conference to choose from.