By Autumn A. Arnett
When the Brigham Young Cougars beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers in Lincoln on opening weekend and walked away with a $1 million check for the trip — it again highlighted the disparities in collegiate athletics funding and competition levels.
The University of Nebraska, which has an annual budget of nearly $95 million — and none of it subsidized by student or state fees — did not expect to lose to an institution with a fraction of its budget. But in many of the other games with similar stakes, the outcomes were much more in line with expectation.
The Nebraska-BYU game represented one of the larger payouts of a weekend that also saw Grambling State University trounced by Cal (73-14), the University of Louisiana at Monroe defeated mightily by Georgia (51-14), Alcorn State obliterated by Georgia Tech (69-6), Akron run over by Oklahoma (41-3) and a number of other small programs picked apart by larger programs looking to fill open spots on the schedule with what they presumed guaranteed wins.
Many have repeatedly criticized the smaller schools’ decisions to accept the games on the schedule at the exchange, they say, for their dignity. Most notably after opening weekend, legendary HBCU football coach William “Billy” Joe took to his facebook page in 2013 to plead for the cessation of FBS vs. FCS football contests — particularly for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Joe primarily argued that the disparities in size and access to training facilities makes an innately dangerous game even more risky, cautioning that continuing to pit unequally matched players against each other will eventually “cause a cataclysmic and calamitous injury.”
“Most major college football players are bigger, stronger, faster and more talented than [small school] players. They also have the latest state-of-the-art athletic infrastructure, resources, equipment, and other high-tech weightlifting facilities to get even stronger, faster and bigger than their [smaller school] counterpart,” Joe said. “Of course, there are a nominal number of football players on lower levels who are just as proficient and talented as major college football players, but when you juxtapose the major college athlete with the small college athlete, the chasm is humongous.”
“There is a distinct reason why peewee football players don’t compete against middle school school football players; there’s a reason why middle school football players don’t compete against high school football players; there is a reason why high school football players do not compete against college football players and there’s a reason why major college football players don’t compete against professional football players,” he continued. The differentiation and imbalance of physicality is too immense.”
Alabama A&M University President Andrew Hugine said that for many of the smaller schools–including HBCUs–who decided to make the jump to Division I athletics, “had to do with the idea of revenue enhancement.”
For most schools, the leap from Division II was with the hope that “we would get a larger share of the revenue that comes from the revenue sharing at that level of competition,” which they thought would come as a result of the larger pool of television, advertising and other revenue pools associated with the higher level of competition.
Joe, who got his start at Cheyney University before heading to Central State University–where he led the team to two NAIA titles–and then coached at FAMU from 1994 to 2004 before finally heading the Miles College team from 2007 to 2013, said he is particularly hurt by the mismatches at the expense of HBCUs and believes the jump to Division I is often not well thought-out. Hugine conceded that many of the schools are finding that their initial projections of increased revenue have not been met.
“Now that we’ve been in for awhile,” Hugine said, “we’re not getting the television revenue to support what we thought was going to happen.”
“Let me hasten to say that that’s not only true with the HBCUs, but it’s also true with the other [programs], other than ‘the big boys,’” he added, saying that all but the largest schools in the largest conferences are facing similar struggles.
“The larger institutions are now kind of creating their own subgroup within the NCAA to do what they want to do, which means that there’s going to be even more of a latch onto the revenue dollars and less of the revenue sharing with the other institutions,” Hugine said.
William J. Broussard, assistant to the president for institutional advancement in the Southern University System, said ensuring equal revenue distribution is not within the NCAA’s purview.
“This is not the NCAA’s fault or responsibility,” he said. “D1 [schools] at our level are getting hundreds of thousands a year in distributions from the NCAA as is, but other FCS conferences are negotiating much more lucrative deals than MEAC and SWAC are.”
These larger institutions have found ways to capitalize on everything from merchandise revenue to placing premiums on seat options, as many NFL teams have done for years. Larry McLaine has worked in athletics departments at several institutions that are perennial championship contenders, including Ohio State University, the University of Southern California and Iowa State University.
“Most big-time D1 football schools count on football revenue to fund the whole athletic budget,” he said, adding that the rights to priority seating are often directly tied to donation levels.
“At Iowa State, you had to donate like $1,000 to have the chance to buy 50-yard line seats (this was in the ‘80s, so I’m sure it’s a lot more now),” said McLaine. “At USC, you need to donate $3,000 just for a shot at priority seats– and I hear their tickets range from $50-$200 for non-premium opponent.”
“With 101,000 seats, that’s a boatload of money,” he added.
For many of the smaller institutions, that gap between the expected revenue from any revenue sharing program and the actual athletics operating budget is filled in with subsidies from direct and indirect student fees and state monies.
At Alabama A&M, for example, 76.74 percent of the overall operating budget is comprised of such subsidies. At Texas Southern, another SWAC school, that number jumps to 85.26 percent. And while these numbers are indeed high, to Hugine’s point that it is not only HBCUs that are affected, the Big South’s Coastal Carolina subsidies amount to 81.96 percent of the total budget, while the Atlantic-10 Conference’s George Mason University athletic subsidies are 81.88 percent of the total budget. The University of California-Riverside subsidizes 89.05 percent and New Jersey Tech subsidizes 90.58 percent, a high for Division 1 play.
Savannah State, and Florida A&M — both often criticized for their participation in guaranteed games — subsidize 67 percent and 71.98 respectively. For Savannah State, whose annual athletics budget is roughly $6.3 million, a $300,000 payout to play Colorado State opening weekend means close to a 5 percent dent in the overall budget (and roughly 12.5 percent of the amount left after subsidies).
While Southern University is one of only a couple of FCS institutions to fund its athletics program with a subsidy below 50%, they’ve participated in guarantee games based on a number of factors other than the proverbial ‘highest bid.’ Broussard added that factors such as amount guaranteed, new media market and exposure opportunities, travel distances for alumni or alumni base presence at host institution, and student-athlete welfare issues (eg. missed class time for travel) are also important. He also added that SWAC and MEAC athletic directors should share more information, resources, and contacts when negotiating contracts to ensure maximum payouts and value.
But Joe said “It is not the major colleges’ fiduciary responsibility to balance small colleges’ athletic budgets.
“If a [small] college cannot financially accommodate its football program, it needs to drop down to Division II; if it cannot handle it’s Division II football program, it needs to drop down to the Division III (no scholarship) level; if it cannot handle a Division III football budget, it needs to, emphatically, drop football altogether.”
Broussard called this “faulty logic,” saying, “In addition to what I’ve noted, historically, FCS programs have not turned net profits on their athletic programs, relying upon substantial subsidies for balance. However, the institutions understand the marketing and recruiting power of successful athletic programs.”
Hugine said completely doing away with the programs is not an option.
“We all know the importance of athletics to our institutions, what it does for the recruitment aspect of it. Believe it or not, even though the majority of the students on campus do not play in the athletic programs … they are attracted to the university because of athletic programs,” Hugine said.
“So there are advantages to having the programs, but what we have to be sure of is that we can [sustain] the cost of these programs within our ability to support them, that we don’t allow ourselves to go overboard and funding them beyond the university’s capacity to do so” without compromising the academic programs and other sports programs on campus, said Hugine.
“As long as we don’t allow the tail to wag the dog, I think that we’re ok, as it relates to athletics,” he added.
But in many cases, there is not only a discrepancy in operating revenue, but also in culture. For HBCUs in particular, what they lack on the football field in many of these bigger games, they make up for in “soul,” as one Bay Area news anchor put it after the Grambling-Cal game.
“At halftime the Grambling Marching Band performed,” said KTVU anchor Frank Somerville. “And when they took the field something happened that I’ve never seen before at a Cal game. (And I’ve been going to Cal games since 1966.) Everyone stayed in their seats to watch them.”
“But that’s not all. My daughter and I were watching from the walkway at the top of the stadium. We were right by all the concession stands. And as soon as the band started playing all those concession stands emptied. It was so bizarre to turn around and see no one in line. But that’s how good the Grambling Marching Band is. They are so precise in their movements,” he said.
“But what I liked best is that they’ve got some real ‘soul,’” Somerville continued. “It’s kind of like the difference between American Bandstand and Soul Train. Both shows had great dancers. But Soul Train was different. Soul train had, for lack of a better word, ‘soul.’”
In fact, despite the complete routing of Grambling State by Cal in that game, Grambling State seemed to dominate the post-game conversations.
For many at major football schools, the entire Saturday culture is football.
“In college towns like Ames (Iowa), Auburn (Alabama), Tuscaloosa (Alabama) and Clemson (South Carolina) –the whole town is focused on a home game,” McLaine said.
But for the smaller schools, particularly HBCUs, “The talent disparity in football, combined with the talent deluge in marching band, makes for fans to pay more attention and to look forward to great halftime shows every [game],” said Jarrett Carter, Sr., the founding editor of HBCUDigest.com.
“Halftime is like a mini-concert. And people go to the games with that expectation,” Carter continued. “For example, some fans will not attend home games against FAMU, [Bethune-Cookman University] if their bands are not making the road trip.”
Philip Sims, who most recently played for the Arizona Cardinals, but who spent his collegiate career in the in the SEC at Alabama, the ACC at the University of Virginia and finally the CIAA at Winston-Salem State University, said “It’s definitely different.”
“At an HBCU, there’s so much going on [socially]. I think, in general, sports isn’t the root of what everybody is focused on at that school,” he said.
Sims said he noticed that Greek Life got more attention than things like sports during his time at WSSU, which was completely different than his experience at Alabama.
“At those programs … When you see these stadiums sold out and 80-100,000 people, that’s because football, basketball, whatever that sport is, that is the sole focus of everybody in the school at that point and time,” he said. “In Alabama, … the sole focus of [the] whole state is Alabama and Auburn football.”
Conversely, at HBCUs, “The football game is just something to go do on a Saturday afternoon, rather than something that’s focused on the whole season. It’s different mindsets,” he said.
That difference doesn’t just show up on Saturdays and doesn’t just end with the fans, Sims said. According to Sims, HBCUs and smaller schools in general, offer more freedom than FBS powerhouses.
“I feel like at a bigger school, they kind of control you a lot more as far as your time and managing what you can do,” Sims said. “At the smaller schools you don’t really have that control. In the offseason, guys have a lot of free time.”
Joe said that the recruiting advantages larger institutions face over HBCUs and other smaller institutions because of their significantly larger budgets — which mean better facilities and better athletics infrastructure and a better chance at playing for a championship — mean that the top Black talent is skimmed from the HBCU recruiting pool and, thus, HBCUs will not likely return to Black college football glory days of old.
“In retrospect, if those same three HBCU teams” — Savannah State, Bethune-Cookman and FAMU — “played major colleges in football in the pre-integration era of the United States of America, I vigorously believe those teams would have a great opportunity to defeat those major colleges,” Joe said.
“Why? All of those phenomenal African-American athletes that are playing for the major colleges in the Southeast quadrant of our country would be playing for Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” he said. “Figuratively speaking, If HBCUs could extract all of the Black football players from the Historically White Colleges and Universities, the HWCUs would have difficulty staying within 100 points of HBCU football teams.”
“Many HWCUs have all 11 African-Americans starting on defense. By the way, a Black college All-Star team was talented enough to have the audacity to play the NFL Championship Chicago Bears during the Jim Crow era in our country,” he said.
“HBCU football is definitely not able to do that in this modern and racially-integrated era. Presently, HBCUs are unable to recruit and attract a bevy of five-star, blue-chip, quality student athletes to their campuses,” Joe continued. “I don’t see HBCUs recapturing the glorious days of Jim Crow football. Black college football was at its nadir and zenith during that time.
As such, he said, they should cease competing in games against the major clubs.
“Sure there [is] a payday,” he said. “But why submit and commit our football players to the slaughter for financial gain. The football players will never profit from the guaranteed money and, in all probability, neither will those respective football programs.”
HBCU Gameday’s Steven Gaither contributed to this report. This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Out of Bounds.