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Sunday, June 23, 2024

The MEAC’s Plan To Keep The HBCU Momentum Going

  • This season was a historic one for HBCU football, which received more visibility and coverage than ever before.
  • MEAC Commissioner Sonja Stills has a plan to keep the momentum going.
South Carolina State players celebrate in front of bowl game poster after beating Deion Sanders in his last game as Jackson State head coach in Celebration Bowl
Austin McAfee/Icon Sportswire

The 2022 season was historic for HBCU football, which received more visibility and coverage than ever before.

The biggest headliner was Jackson State, led by former coach Deion Sanders. The team landed one of the only HBCU spots on ESPN “College GameDay” in the show’s history and helped the SWAC championship draw record viewers. 

The frenzy around Jackson State and HBCU football this year has been dubbed the “Deion Sanders Effect” — and it arguably benefited other HBCU conferences, too, even though Sanders, of course, will leave for Colorado and Power 5 football. 

Ahead of Saturday’s Celebration Bowl between Jackson State and North Carolina Central, MEAC Commissioner Sonja Stills talked about her plan to build on the momentum.

“What we need to do, now that he’s gone, is to continue that effort,” Stills told Front Office Sports. HBCU conferences need to “continue to showcase that talent that our institutions have.”

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In her first year as commissioner, Stills made multiple moves to elevate the conference’s visibility. 

  • She set up a digital broadcast of the men’s and women’s tennis championships for the first time. It’s part of a strategy to improve the visibility of Olympic sports. 
  • She moved the headquarters of the MEAC Digital Network to the conference office “to give us more opportunities to tell our story.” She doubled the number of episodes for a conference football kickoff show to “[showcase] the great culture we have on each of our campuses.”
  • A deal between HBCU Go and CBS provided more visibility than ever to HBCU schools across the country, including those in the MEAC.

One of her biggest goals in 2023: increasing revenue generation — particularly important given that the MEAC lost schools to the latest realignment shuffle. 

She wants to focus funding on broadcasting resources, increasing the strength of the MEAC’s fundraising arm, and even bringing back sports that the conference has lost, like baseball.

While those goals appear a bit more traditional, she’s also looking toward innovation. 

  • The MEAC has invested in name, image, and likeness education for athletes, and has put a significant focus on creating content that athletes can use on their social media through a partnership with INFLCR.
  • After all, the MEAC has one of the top NIL athletes in the country in Norfolk State’s Rayquan Smith — who has inked more than 70 deals since the NIL era began. He’s been called “The King of NIL” by multiple outlets.
  • The conference is also looking to lean into esports, which it originally began exploring during the pandemic, Still said. 
  • The MEAC has hosted three semesters worth of esports championships, and is gunning for the sport to be considered varsity in the future.  

But first, the final opportunity to showcase HBCU football. The annual Celebration Bowl — between the conference champions from the MEAC and SWAC —  was established in 2015 and is one of the only bowls that features non-FBS teams. 

And it gets the star treatment: It’s held at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta and holds the marquee noon ET broadcast window on ABC.

“The MEAC is strong — it has the commitment of our elite eight-member institutions — and we are moving forward into the future,” she said.

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