When the Ivy League speaks — even about sports — it gets attention.
In early March, just as fans were readying for weeks of college basketball, the eight-team conference canceled its men's and women's basketball tournaments. Two days later, the NCAA halted all remaining winter and spring championships, including March Madness, the most widely anticipated college sports event of the year.
So when the Ivy League made another announcement, on July 8, that it was suspending fall sports competitions, including football, David Ponton, Grambling State University's athletic director, knew the dominoes had begun to fall. That was bad news for his program and for other historically Black colleges and universities that count on athletics revenue.
In a USA Today analysis of revenue generated by athletic programs at 227 public colleges during the 2018-19 academic year, no HBCU ranked higher than 147th. Although HBCUs generally bring in less money from athletics, they tend to be more reliant on it, making any losses significant.
There are 101 accredited HBCUs in the U.S., according to federal data, the vast majority of which are in the South. The most storied HBCU teams belong to the 50-year-old Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and the 100-year-old Southwestern Atlantic Conference (SWAC). The pandemic has exacerbated logistical and financial issues that have long plagued their members' athletic programs.
These institutions can't fall back on large donor bases or hefty endowments to get them through hard times. But some prominent HBCU athletic programs bring in funds from nonconference games and rivalry matchups. The money is used primarily to fund athletic programs and provide scholarships.
As such, shortening or eliminating the football season, which has involved cutting or postponing these games, could be financially disastrous for the schools.
"Most HBCUs are working as hard as they can during the season to make ends meet. Even before the pandemic, some had to make hard choices about shutting down one sport or another," said Lee Ivory, a former editor and publisher of USA Today's Sports Weekly.
"So a season without football, basketball or track is a killer," Ivory said. "There's nothing to replace that revenue stream, and they still have to pay for scholarship athletes and other university bills that sports otherwise would have helped them cover."
Pay to play
The MEAC and SWAC soon followed the Ivy League's announcement with their own.
Citing the "rapid escalation" of coronavirus cases along the East Coast, the MEAC announced on July 16 that it was suspending fall sports competitions indefinitely. Four days later, the SWAC said it planned to postpone fall sports competitions until the spring, at which point its football team would pick up with a seven-game schedule. The MEAC has since come up with a proposal for playing some of those sports in the spring.
Because nonconference, or guarantee games, don't impact football teams' conference rankings, they tend to be cut first in a shortened season. The SWAC said in its July statement that it is allowing one nonconference game for its anticipated spring football season.
Karen Weaver, a professor of sport management at Drexel University, explains how guarantee games work. "If the conference provides the opportunity to play nine games, teams go looking to fill the three extra games," Weaver said of the big schools asking HBCUs to play. "So, they call up nonconference opponents and say, 'We'll give you $500,000 to play in our stadium on this day.'"
The HBCUs that the larger institutions pursue are generally in lower-level conferences. Those schools also tend to need the money and so usually don't turn down the opportunity. Plus, Weaver added, "they like having their team on television." There are blowouts, however. Last year, Bethune-Cookman University received nearly $500,000, The Athletic reported, for taking a 63-0 drubbing from the University of Miami on the ESPN-owned ACC Network.
"The good news is that these schools still have a chance to earn that revenue in the spring. The bad news is that they have to wait until spring for the money."
Former editor and publisher, USA Today Sports Weekly
Rivalry matchups can be another money-maker. And they, too, are beginning to cancel.
Last year's 46th annual Bayou Classic between Southern University and Grambling State drew nearly 70,000 people to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, in New Orleans, and was broadcast live on NBC Sports. Ponton, Grambling State's athletic director, said the university brought home $1 million. But on July 21, organizers announced that the 2020 iteration of the game has been postponed until the spring.
In addition, Ponton said, Grambling State will miss out on $1.1 million if three other games are not rescheduled. Those are the MEAC/SWAC Challenge as well as a game against the University of South Alabama and a matchup with the University of Texas at San Antonio.
The Orange Blossom Classic matchup was scheduled to return in 2020 after a four-decade break. But that game also has been canceled, meaning Florida A&M University stands to lose its $325,000 guarantee, as reported by the Tallahassee Democrat, for taking on Albany State University.
Schools that have relied on paychecks from these games are now in a holding pattern. "The good news is that these schools still have a chance to earn that revenue in the spring," Ivory said. "The bad news is that they have to wait until spring for the money."
'A reset in thinking'
In the meantime, SWAC and MEAC schools are waiting and planning. Even if competitions resume in the spring, schools will have to make major adjustments to protect fans. Many game attendees are Black and older, putting them among the demographics most at risk for not only contracting the virus but also getting very sick from it.
"I don't think college football coaches have ever had to think about anything outside their field and the practice facilities and those types of things. So, this is really forcing a reset in thinking," Weaver said.
Dillard University's athletic director, Kiki Barnes, serves as interim commissioner for the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference (GCAC), which is made up of eight HBCUs that enrolled between 700 and 3,100 undergraduates each as of last fall. Barnes pointed out that because GCAC schools don't have big athletic programs, they have never counted on sports revenues.
That doesn't mean the crisis's impact on sports can't deal a blow.
"Most of our budgets are prepared based on what we're able to generate via the number of students we have for enrollment," Barnes said. "So canceling the games is not as devastating in terms of the amount of financial loss."
However, Barnes added, "if, for some reason, we were not able to open as a university, then we'd begin to see the loss of revenue, programs being canceled or coaches being fired."