By Kevin Sweeney
The events of the last three weeks have brought race relations to the forefront of public discourse about virtually every topic in American life, and college sports are no different.
The aftermath of the murder of George Floyd has brought back the debate about the role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities in college sports. The argument is simple: Black student-athletes are the most important asset in college football and basketball, yet rather than drive revenue and national awareness to HBCUs they’ve headed to predominantly white institutions while HBCU budgets continue to dwindle. Elite recruits like 2023 sensation Mikey Williams have openly spoken about their willingness to consider HBCU options in recent weeks, and most recently Jeff Goodman of Stadium reported that an ACC head coach is proposing a Martin Luther King Day event in which ACC schools would play against MEAC schools.
This idea seems nice. It would provide national TV airtime to programs that rarely show up in the spotlight on a day that commemorates a man who has done as much to help race relations in the country as anyone. It could be made even better, as some have pointed out, by playing the games on HBCU campuses in a move that would bring significant financial benefits for the programs that rarely play non-conference home games against Division 1 opponents. Still, something like this doesn’t do anything significant to actually help the outcomes of these athletic departments long-term.
The bottom line is this: college basketball is dictated by money. The programs with the least amount of money are the HBCUs. The median yearly men’s basketball budget for MEAC programs is $1,079,602, per an analysis of Department of Higher Education data by Three Man Weave’s Jim Root. The only league spending less? The SWAC, another HBCU conference, which spent a median of just $873,612 per school. Meanwhile, the median spending in the ACC and Big 12 eclipses $10 million per school. Even other leagues that traditionally only send one team to the NCAA Tournament like the CAA, MAAC and Big West easily double and nearly triple HBCU yearly spending.
A lack of resources impacts every part of a program. Less money makes it harder to keep good coaches, both head and assistants. It limits the ability to host recruits on official visits, a key chance to sway them away from other programs. It means more same-day travel, more long bus trips. It means spending most, if not all of your non-conference season on the road playing buy games to balance the budget not just for your team, but for your entire athletic department. And that’s not even mentioning the facilities investments and practice facilities that have become part of the college basketball arms race, yet are simply not possible for athletic departments struggling to scrape by. These are the realities of HBCU basketball — constantly asked to do more with less. Myron Medcalf’s feature about life on the road with North Carolina Central earlier this year provides an illuminating look at this.
It’s unrealistic that HBCUs will be near the top of the college basketball world anytime soon. Sure, a day of appreciation on ESPN would be great. An elite recruit going the road less traveled rather than to a traditional powerhouse would provide a lot of attention, but likely not much long-term change. If the NCAA and the powers that be in college sports believe in the value of HBCUs in intercollegiate athletics, they’d consider an idea that might be seen as radical: revenue redistribution that gives these programs a fair shot.
The most direct model to do this would be through the NCAA’s “unit” program based on men’s basketball success. This USA Today article explains the current structure well — essentially, conference receive money based on how many teams make the NCAA Tournament and how many games those teams play. Per the article, since 1997 the Big Ten has received around $340 million in distributions. Over the same period, the SWAC has received $25 million. That works out to well over a million dollars per year, per school different in revenue. For Big Ten schools that receive more than $50 million per year in conference revenue distributions thanks to massive TV deals, that money could be lived without. What if the NCAA decided to guarantee that the MEAC and SWAC received the same number of units each year as the two highest totals? That money could come directly from those two high-earning leagues, or the units could be shrunk slightly so MEAC and SWAC teams received the same number of units as the two highest leagues and the pie shrinks a bit for everyone.
This plan wouldn’t drastically change the power structure in college basketball. What it would do is give HBCUs a fair shot. Let’s say this adds another million to every MEAC/SWAC school’s budget. Ignoring what it could do for other sports (provide more scholarships, allow for more travel, etc), it would make a massive difference in college basketball. Adding that million directly to the men’s basketball budget would help coaches get paid what they are worth, allow teams to play fewer buy games and invest more in the student-athlete experience. That million dollars would bring the median budgets for these conferences on par with the likes of the Sun Belt, America East, and Atlantic Sun. Down the line, that helps programs recruit against other one-bid league teams and stay out of the First Four in Dayton.
HBCUs are a unique and important part of college athletics. They shouldn’t be seen as the last resort for recruits or a whipping boy for high-majors in search of an easy win. By investing some of the money from the organization’s biggest cash cow in these schools, the much-maligned NCAA can finally get one right and make one message clear: HBCUs matter, especially in an industry that relies on predominantly Black student-athletes playing without pay.