On an overcast day in the heart of Jackson, Mississippi, Deion Sanders slowly strolls through a stream of adoring supporters on a tricked-out motorized scooter that features “PRIME” on the seat, headed toward the ESPN College GameDay set.
It was almost unthinkable prior to Sanders’ arrival that college football’s most popular road show would ever be stationed outside Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium to conduct its Saturday orchestra.
But there he was —in a JSU hoodie layered with a dark sport coat, wearing sunglasses and a large bedazzled chain fashioned in the image of the Tigers’ home stadium around his neck —the live-action symbol of the mainstream media’s interest in HBCU football culture.
“This is unbelievable,” said Sanders on stage, flanked by Rece Davis, Desmond Howard, Pat McAfee, and Kirk Herbstreit. “This is what we dreamed of.”
The scene on Saturday was another in a recent string of appearances by HBCUs on the national stage.
Two Sundays ago, Sanders was front and center in a 60 Minutes segment. That was prior to the school and the football operation being given a Good Morning America billboard ahead of its homecoming festivities.
However, it was not just Jackson State reaping the benefits of exposure.
During its homecoming celebrations, Good Morning America went live from Florida A&M last Friday.
‘You can’t pay for that’
North Carolina Central coach Trei Oliver is familiar with this position. Last season, his Eagles were featured on College GameDay leading into their MEAC/SWAC Challenge game against Alcorn State in Atlanta.
“It’s outstanding,” Oliver told an HBCU Sports reporter Monday during the MEAC coaches’ media call about once again witnessing other HBCU programs gain similar notoriety. But when you are on a national platform like Good Morning America or College GameDay, you can’t pay for that.
“We had the opportunity to be on College GameDay and Good Morning America last year, and it did so much for our brand. So whenever you can get that type of exposure, it just helps not just your campus but all of the HBCU community.”
Rod Milstead, the current coach at Delaware State, played 56 games in the NFL as an offensive guard over eight seasons, including one year as a member of the XXIX Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers with Sanders.
Milstead, whose locker was stationed next to the Pro Football Hall of Famer during that 1994 season, explained that Sanders’ influence has contributed to HBCUs being vaulted into the national spotlight once again.
“His platform has brought a lot of attention to HBCUs. HBCUs have been here even before Rod Milstead got here, “he said. When things were separate, it was kind of the main thing in the black household to go to an HBCU school. Because of Deion, HBCUs have been getting more headlines in the mainstream and all these other platforms.
“And other people have been attaching their wagons to him and his platform to be a part of it because they see that all the cameras have turned around and they’re on him.”
On Tuesday, ESPN noted that last Saturday’s College GameDay episode drew an average of 1.8 million. In the final hour of the show, more than 2.3 million watched.
‘All eyes’ are on HBCU football
While heightened awareness is not new to HBCU football, it is something coaches have felt and looked to capitalize on.
For example, Alabama A&M, which recently played in front of 67,000 fans in Birmingham against Alabama State at the Magic City Classic, is scheduled to play at Mississippi Valley State in a nationally televised game on ESPNU “with all eyes” on them Thursday, said Bulldogs head coach Connell Maynor.
“And I talked with my players about Jackson (State) being on Good Morning America and GameDay being in Jackson and the FAMU situation,” he said. “We talked about all of those situations and that (the) spotlight is on HBCUs now. They are on us and we want to make A&M and the SWAC look good. “
Keeping up appearances, or trying to, is something HBCUs have had to do just to acquire consistent visibility. But these days, sparked by Sanders’ flamboyance and America grappling with race, there are two streaming networks specifically dedicated to live black college sports coverage. Legacy national sports media have committed space to all things HBCU. Podcasters, YouTubers, and those who dabble in Twitter Spaces have jumped on the bandwagon, too.
It is a signal of a shift indeed. Whether it’s truly altruism or a case of media parachuting for self-interest, remains to be seen. But for now, HBCU football programs are basking in the glow of the attention that Sanders has helped forge.
“And right now his platform is helping HBCUs,” said Milstead of Sanders. “There are a lot of people at HBCUs that have attached their wagon to him, and hopefully he’ll continue to pull us along as well.”