Last year, the players and coaches of the schools of the MEAC knew that they all had an equal chance to compete for a national championship, just like all the other schools in Division I Football Championship Subdivision, or FCS.
But with the announcement of the Celebration Bowl, a postseason bowl game which rips the MEAC's champion away from the playoffs to face off against the winner of the SWAC, none of the talk anymore is about the athletes.
The talk on the internet around the bowl, financed and created, essentially, by ESPN, is how much money each host school could or could not bring home if they qualify for the game.
Rather than haggle over money, though, I think HBCU conferences are probably better served by doing something that probably has been needed to be done for decades - reorganizing.
The reason, oddly enough, is the bowl game.
It's ostensibly about the players, giving them an experience they otherwise wouldn't have had, but that's not the hot takes that are happening online in regards to this reincarnation of an old idea.
The Celebration Bowl is a reboot of the original Heritage Bowl, an old concept that pitted the champions of the MEAC and the champions of the SWAC in an attempt to determine a "Black College National Champion". (The Heritage Bowl, too, was a reboot of its own, the "Pelican Bowl", which was contested in the 1970s.)
Neither the Heritage Bowl nor the Pelican Bowl could be described as a huge financial success, if you look at it in terms of attendance. When the stars aligned properly, i.e when the Southern University Jaguars played in the game, the attendance topped 30,000. But when the last reboot of the game was played in 1999, a 24-3 win over Hampton by Southern, the game was decided to be discontinued.
"Major reasons were a lack of fan support and the end of a two-year television agreement (1998-1999) between NBC and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and Southwestern Athletic Conference," The New York Times reported in 2000.
Has the "fan support" for, essentially, the exact same game in the exact same venue (the Georgia Dome, and eventually, the NFL's Atlanta Falcons' new home), really come back? When you hear from Grambling legend Doug Williams and MEAC commissioner Dennis Thomas, you might believe it.
“I certainly think the game is good for black colleges as a whole, from an athletic side [and a] publicity side, and to give historically black colleges something to hold onto,” said Williams, now a personnel executive for the Washington Redskins.
“As part of the conference’s continued efforts in branding and increasing its exposure on a national platform, I am elated that champions from the MEAC and the SWAC will compete in a bowl game, during the most exciting time of the year for collegiate football, Thomas said. "Our continued partnership with ESPN will give our coaches, student-athletes and fans an opportunity to participate in an exciting bowl game, on a national stage, which will showcase their institutions and talented football programs. Adding a national television opportunity for our champion, during this time of year, only furthers our branding and marketability.”However, that seems at odds with the reality. Not only did the attendance for the original "Heritage Bowl" decrease from its highs when it was decided to be discontinued, the "Atlanta Football Classic", too, played in the Georgia Dome, has seen attendance halve since 2011. The MEAC/SWAC Championship game would be played in the same venue.
Furthermore, the publicity angle, that the game will be broadcast "on an ESPN network", is an odd one to play, considering the MEAC and SWAC already has a TV relationship with ESPN during the regular season.
These two conferences have some of its regular-season games on Thursdays on ESPNU, and the SWAC additionally has it's championship game already on ESPNU as well. Is adding another game on ESPNU - which, based on their existing deal, seems the likely destination for this game - really such a different athletic showcase for the champions of the MEAC and SWAC?
Technically, an FCS championship run would garner even more "exposure" for a MEAC team, if they were good enough to qualify. Not only is the championship televised on ESPN2, so are the semifinals and one of the quarterfinals, including at least one game on ESPN.
Sadly, that's not the debate that's raging right now in regards to the game - it's more about the unpleasant business on how the conferences and schools - and most notably, not the athletes - are going to be divvying up the spoils.
Information was given out during an Alumni meeting in Greensboro, NC. In this Meeting, it was said by A&T Officials that the MEAC champ was getting $200,000 in tickets. It was also mentioned that the remaining $800,000 would be split either 70/30 or 80/20 in favor of the participating team and ESPN will pay for the school's band and cheerleaders travel and boarding in Atlanta (two nights & food).
In essence, if everything goes perfect (80/20 split and the school sells the full allotment of tickets), the school can bring in up to $840,000 in gross revenue. That's in the ball park north of 10% of some of the budgets in the MEAC.
Honestly, this game benefits those schools that have alumni within a 2 to 3 hour travel time (car or plane) to Atlanta. MEAC north teams would have expenses from keeping the dorms open a week during winter break to the extensive travel of their travel party, and would have trouble unloading $200K worth of tickets in a week's time.
It was also mentioned, especially about the last part, that aside from the $200,000 in tickets, nothing else was agreed upon and no contract was given to the schools nor was signed by any of the Co-CEO's.
The key will be getting the word out and getting them to purchase tickets from the school and not from Ticketmaster, etc.
The SWAC has NOT yet decided how it will split the remaining 800k. The AD's and presidents still have to make their suggestions and get this resolved. One request is that the SWAC champion will get at least 600k from that pool, with the remaining 200k split amongst 9 members and the SWAC office. That would allow for the SWAC rep to possibly net 500-700k. All players will likely travel for this game as a reward for a great season. Teams will be required to stay 4 nights in a hotel to be determined by the Bowl. Could easily cost 50k in hotel expenses alone. Obviously, some schools are close enough to travel by bus but others will have flight expenses.
I was told that ESPN WILL indeed cover band expenses. However, that amount will not likely cover expenses for entire band. It will be an amount likely to cover 150-200 band members. All others will be on the university's dime.This $200,000 worth of tickets business mimics the sort of shenanigans that lower-tier bowls require at the FBS level, with the important difference that the schools there are frequently required to buy the high-priced tickets with the profits going back to the bowl organizers. Here, it's being pitched at the schools as an "income opportunity", but it's clear that the opportunity benefits a minority of the schools in the conference - those with rabid travelling fanbases and/or those with lots of alumni in and around the Atlanta area. (If the inaugural Celebration Bowl ends up being, say, Mississippi Valley State vs. Delaware State, how on Earth will either school sell enough tickets to make any sort of profit?)
Not only do teams like MVSU and Delaware State get cheaped out on the ticket deal, but they also would bear extra burdens in terms of housing people extra time in dorms, especially bands, the team, transportation, etc. I could easily see smaller schools in the MEAC and SWAC wanting to decline to partake in the game because of the money they'd ultimately lose - even with the promise of $500,000. When you add up transportation and guaranteed hotel stays and everything else, more than half of that $500,000 could easily be eaten up.
But some schools might profit handsomely from the deal - if they can sell the tickets.
It seems pretty sad in this day and age when talk is of players' rights and players' interests to be talking about how the schools can best carve up the turkey that is the money paid by ESPN to televise the game. As this editorial very accurately points out, nobody asked the players whether they wanted this new bowl game.
But it got me to thinking - you could split the MEAC and SWAC into conferences by their perceived ability to get a huge payday from that game.
Think about it. Delaware State, Mississippi Valley State, Alcorn State and many other smaller HBCU's will never be able to get the sort of payday in this game to make it worthwhile to them. However, a school like North Carolina A&T, which could see payouts as high as $800,000 if they sell all their tickets, might be able to use such a game to help subsidize their athletic departments.
In my mind there are eight teams that could perhaps make this work, with one very large assumption that might not be accurate - that these fan bases are still able to rely on the revenue model of having their fans travel long distances to watch the games:
North Carolina A&T
North Carolina Central
Instead of having this championship game be the MEAC vs. SWAC, what could be done instead is to host a championship game for this new conference in Atlanta instead.
However, the problem becomes the new conference would need at least two more teams to break into divisions and host this championship game.
Who are those other two schools that would make the plunge, though?
Savannah State could do so, perhaps, because they're relatively close to Atlanta, but their fan base and enrollment (4,066) are a stretch at best.
Texas Southern has the fan base and enrollment, but are distant from Atlanta - would their fans travel from Houston on relatively short notice to Atlanta?
South Carolina State has had a rabid fan base over the years, but has also had a steep decline in enrollment and several documented institutional issues that might not make them a good fit for this new conference, either.
Tennessee State may also have the fan base to make this work - however, they currently compete in the OVC and seem more interested in the FCS playoffs than this particular revenue model.
Hampton and Norfolk State might still be interested, but they're eight hours away from Atlanta by bus. Howard is even further away.
So let's say Savannah State and South Carolina State are willing to take a chance on this new conference - the two closest schools to Atlanta. Ten teams, with a championship game the week before Christmas in Atlanta.
North Carolina Central
South Carolina State
North Carolina A&T
The remaining teams could have a pretty good deal in their own right - by forming a new HBCU conference whose champion qualifies for the FCS Playoffs.
Virginia State (from CIAA)
Maryland-Eastern Shore (no football)
Coppin State (no football)
Mississippi Valley State
Prairie View A&M
Both compact conferences mean that regular travel costs remain down - much less than the travel costs they currently incur, I'd guess - and if the schools mandate only a seven-game conference schedule it would open up four or five games to schedule classics or FBS games, which would net even more money. It would mean each East team makes one conference trip out West a season, and vice versa.
It's not perfect - and it makes an assumption that Virginia State is interested in moving up to a new HBCU FCS conference - but it would seem to align the two conferences to their priorities. One would be going for the mythical "HBCU National Championship", and the other would be trying to keep costs down and compete for an FCS National Championship. Both conferences would split into divisions, which would keep travel costs down for both schools.
In looking at the Celebration Bowl, I think maybe a MEAC/SWAC reorganization is what's best for everyone involved.