“Take the fast road and get robbed then. Do you want to be famous or do you want to be rich? Because there is a likeliness that you might not be able to be both in this game. At a certain point you have to decide, do you want to be seen and known and look like you got bread and have everybody assume you got bread? Or do you really want to have bread and have people just assume you broke and not really getting it?” – Bun B
Jackie Robinson’s foray into Major League Baseball. Sam “Bam” Cunningham’s foray into PWI football. Texas Western’s championship in 1966 in PWI basketball. These are pivotal moments when an individual’s action would start the demolition of the institutions of African American institutional athletic power along with collapse of the infrastructure and ecosystems that made them such valuable assets to the African American community. In both instances, it would precipitate a talent and economic drain of African American institutions.
The Negro Leagues would ultimately fold, ownership, executives, managers, hundreds if not thousands of jobs that were the byproduct of the Negro League wiped away to the sands of time. In 1947, there were zero African American owners in Major League Baseball. In 2023, there are zero African American owners in Major League Baseball. “Virtually all of the initial (Negro League) ownership was Black”, says Garrick Kebede, a Houston-based financial adviser and Negro League Baseball historian. In fact, across all major professional sports leagues (121 teams), there is only one African American principal owner – Michael Jordan, owner of the Charlotte Hornets and rumors are he is on the verge of selling the team almost eight decades after Branch Rickey poached Jackie Robinson. On the labor side, Major League Baseball reached its African American apex of players in 1981 with 18.7 percent of the players being African American. In 2023, that number has seen a precipitous decline down to 6.7 percent – a number not seen since 1957, a decade after Jackie Robinson entered the majors. Jackie Robinson’s move to the MLB did not just set the stage for the demise of the Negro Leagues, it would set the seed for HBCUs athletic demise just a few decades later.
A little over two decades later in 1966, Texas Western University (now, University of Texas El-Paso) would win the NCAA basketball championship with the first all-black starting lineup at a PWI and a few years later in 1970, Sam “Bam” Cunningham would take USC’s offense and run all over the all-white University of Alabama. Jerry Claiborne, an assistant to Head Coach Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama, famously said, “Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King Jr. did in 20 years.” But he did not integrate anything. Both instances simply convinced PWIs that Black athletes were the future of their programs and taking that talent from HBCUs could financially benefit them immensely among their STILL predominantly white fan bases and boosters. The fans and boosters just want to win. And while a decrease in European American players happened, the coaches, boosters, trustees, school bodies, and ownership in all the places that matter would still be what it has always been. Before enslaved Africans were brought to America, indentured servants who were the poor of Europe would be the labor pool of early America. This was to be no different of a transition. And ownership is ultimately the rub of where all of this lies for African America and HBCUs.
The money behind the playoffs for football, the NCAA and NIT tournament for basketball, and the World Series for baseball and softball is dare we say – complicated. This in part is due to the way payouts are structured for each playoff/tournament and how schools and conferences choose to deal with the funds they receive for participating. For instance, in the NCAA tournament, “The NCAA urges the conference to distribute the earnings equally to the schools, but it is not a requirement. Typically, the bigger conferences will divide the money and send it to its member schools. The smaller ones, however, need the money to cover their own expenses, and then will send what’s left to its member schools.”, according to AS’s Jennifer Bubel. On the other hand, the NCAA’s ownership of the NIT operates a bit differently. “The NCAA has a complex way of rewarding teams for participating in March Madness. For the NIT, it’s much simpler. In addition to having travel, hotel and other expenses comped, each school in the NIT is given $4,000 for every game it plays. It’s a total payout pool of $128,000 this year.” says Sportico’s Eben Nvoy-Williams. Yet, Nvoy-Williams also points out that the NIT’s profitability to the NCAA while being lesser known is extremely profitable, “Though it’s nowhere near the commercial entity of March Madness, the National Invitation Tournament, or NIT, is a very profitable business for the NCAA. In 2019, the last year the event was held, it turned a $2.1 million profit on $3.3 million in expenses, according to financial documents. In 2018, the numbers were similar.” For football, “Each conference receives $6 million from the College Football Playoff for each team selected for a semifinal game and $4 million for each team that plays in a non-playoff bowl under the College Football Playoff.” reports Business of College Sports. Last but not least there is baseball, “In 2011, the NCAA included the College World Series as part of a $500 million television deal with ESPN for 24 sports championships through 2023-2024.” according to Huddle Up’s Joe Pompliano. Have we lost everyone yet? To sum it up, the finances of college athletics are extremely complicated. Adding to that complication is the fact that these playoffs and tournaments are all owned by the NCAA. But that ownership is now under threat as the Power 5 members realizing their own outsized power within the NCAA are vying to form their own entity. CBS Sports reports, “Majority of Power Five schools favor breaking away” and they primarily are looking to do so because they recognize they are a disproportionate contributor to NCAA events and more ownership would allow to share less and keep more within their conferences. Whether or not they determine that ownership is within the NCAA or a separate athletic association of their own is to be determined. Given their outsize influence in the NCAA though it may end up being a debate over how you pronounce tomato or potato.
Many HBCU athletic supporters believe it is better that HBCUs fight for the respect and equality of their PWI counterparts in the NCAA as opposed to taking ownership of the HBCU Power Five (SWAC, MEAC, SIAC, CIAA, and GCAC) and forming the HBCU Athletic Association. This despite not having the alumni bases, boosters, or economic weight to be anything more than what we are in the NCAA’s ecosystem. In some respects, it harkens to the playing field of hip-hop where many artists finally started realizing that it was far better financially to be an independent artist than sign to a major label where an advance (also known as a loan) would keep the artist indebted to the label forever. A continued belief is that all we need to do is get the best athletes to come back to HBCUs and that resolves everything. Something no one seems to actually have an answer on how to accomplish or recognition in just how much that would cost – again, while not having the financial resources to accomplish it. Many think abandoning HBCU conferences and moving into PWI conferences is the answer despite multiple schools having tried and failing. HBCUs weakening HBCU conferences for PWI conferences is no different than African American athletes abandoning HBCUs for PWIs. It does not help us scale institutional power or circulate institutional capital.
As it stands right now, the NCAA tournament is worth approximately $340,000 per win and with only the SWAC and MEAC participating (FBS schools only), even with a miraculous run it would workout to only $220,250 per school between the two conferences should they BOTH make it all the way to the Final Four. The secret to a conference actually making a lot of money in the NCAA tournament is having multiple teams from the conference get into the tournament. The SWAC/MEAC always only get one each and that is the automatic bid from winning their conference tournament. Money that a team earns in the tournament is usually (not required) split evenly among all of the members of the conference. Not always the case with smaller schools like HBCUs whose individual programs usually need every single penny. Given that every SWAC/MEAC athletic programs runs in the red and their 2019-2020 combined losses were to the tune of $161M it is hard to say whether the basketball programs that make it will share or can even afford to share.
The harsh reality of the probability for a deep run for HBCU men’s basketball is reflected in the SWAC/MEAC’s win-loss record in the tournament. Without comment, it is 4-55 all-time and we think that speaks for itself. It means that the SWAC/MEAC earned usually earn no more than the one unit times two teams for making it and this year that works out to a total of approximately $680,000 combined and $34,000 per school in the conferences if it is evenly divided. Can HBCUs create their own HBCU basketball tournament that would earn each school more than $34,000 per year? That is essentially the question that must be answered in considering creating our own tournament versus continuing to play in the NCAA tournament. If you included all 57 members of the HBCU Five, then that would need to be a tournament that produced a profit of $1.94M. Based on the NIT’s numbers, that would mean expenses of $3.1M or $55,000 per school approximately and revenues of approximately $5M or $87,700 per school. Again, this is a profit of almost $2M for the HBCU Five. The difference in this case is that of course the conferences would have an asset they could actually put on their financial statements that would be held in trust among their member institutions. Quite an enticing carrot in trying to recruit independent HBCUs to join the conference like Tennessee State University or PBIs like Chicago State University. The HBCU Five should be able to leverage a television contract for at least the cost of the tournament with everything else being profit thereafter. This could be repeated with football, baseball, and other sports.
Continued delusion around HBCU athletics competing with PWI athletic programs that have budgets ten times their size, a roster of boosters who write million dollar checks annually, corporate relationships with executives who also are PWI alumni and owned by PWI shareholders is a one-way train ticket to Diasasterville with the brake lines cut. You can not do what your competitor is doing when your resources socially, economically, and politically are as obtuse as HBCU reality. There are no HBCU boosters writing million dollar checks annually, there are no companies with HBCU executives and owned by HBCU shareholders who can provide multimillion corporate sponsorships, and there are reasons we all know and only say in private about why many African American high school athletes and their families overwhelmingly choose PWIs. We have to do different, think different, be creative, and solve the Rubik’s Cube that is not only the athletic conundrum we are facing but the lack of ownership crisis that continues to have a chokehold on African American institutionalism since 1947.