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HBCU football programs garnering more attention, talent

Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders signed on as head coach of Jackson State University and brought a new wave of attention to the program and all HBCUs, as well.
Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders signed on as head coach of Jackson State University and brought a new wave of attention to the program and all HBCUs, as well.

It’s football season and football programs at historically Black colleges and universities are enjoying more media attention these days. It's still not a lot compared to majority colleges and universities, but it’s increasing. Media deals are being secured, and some HBCUs are attracting top-notch coaches and players. With All Things Considered host Gwendolyn Glenn to talk about these developments is Langston Wertz, Jr., a long-time sportswriter with the Charlotte Observer.

Glenn: Now, earlier this year, HBCU Go, owned by entertainer and Allen Media Group owner Byron Allen, struck a deal with Southwestern Athletic Conference, the SWAC, to broadcast its football games. Langston, tell us more about that deal.

Wertz Jr.: Well, it aims to cover 107 Black colleges, Gwen, with sports programming involving the CIAA and the SWAC. In addition to the website, it's also being carried by some CBS affiliates nationwide. The deal with the SWAC is worth ten years, $120 million. And there's also the free web portal where fans can watch the game.

Glenn: Any idea how many people are watching online or, as you said, sometimes when it's on television?

Wertz Jr.: Haven't seen any ratings. I know, Gwen, HBCU Legends, a service that covers the HBCU, the new streaming service, is reaching nearly 60% of U.S. homes and 70% of Black homes in this league. For example, they're going to broadcast Arkansas Pine Bluff at Alcorn State.

Glenn: So when you hear of deals like the multibillion-dollar seven-year Big Ten media deal with FOX, CBS and NBC, this might not seem like a big deal, but it is for HBCUs, I mean, whose games over the years have in some markets been totally ignored?

Wertz Jr.: Yeah. I mean, TV deals make the sports world go round, Gwen. So this is the start for HBCUs to get some of that TV pie they have not always gotten.

Glenn: Well, the move comes at a time when HBCUs are also attracting top talent to their football programs. For instance, in 2020, the eight-time Pro Bowler, Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders signed on as head coach of Jackson State University and brought a new wave of attention to the program and HBCUs as well.

Sanders: I love where we are with our program, and I'm trying to inflame other programs as well simultaneously. So when I'm up on the stage talking, I'm not just talking about Jackson State, I'm talking about the whole HBCU and the whole SWAC, you know, like Black college football in general.

Wertz Jr. Well, Gwen, Deion's accelerating an HBCU arms race, if you want to be honest about it. He's raised the level of Jackson State recruiting. His name and social media brand has helped attract the biggest and best recruiting class it ever had. In 2021, they went 11 and one his first year out and they won the conference for the first time since 2007. They also, Gwen, averaged 42,000 fans per game and major networks have noticed.

Glenn: Well, also, he did the HBCU combine in Miami, the NFL combine.

Wertz Jr.: Yeah. So he was frustrated with the lack of representation in the NFL draft. He helped organize the HBCU NFL combine this year. All 32 teams showed up in Mobile, Alabama, to evaluate 39 prospects on 22 teams, four of those got drafted.

Sanders: My desire is 7 to 10 players just this year draft that. Then we're going to try to double it and double that and then the sky's going to be the limit.

Wertz Jr.: Deion's influence on HBCU and NFL in opportunities is only a good thing, but it can't just be Deon. There's going to have to be some more voices and I would not be surprised to see other HBCUs hire, you know, former NFL players like a Deion Sanders to come in. And one thing I think is we move on and these kids go on, hopefully, to do well in the NFL. The NFL will look to more HBCU players and they'll be drafted even higher in the draft. Jackson State's linebacker James Houston, for example, was drafted by Detroit in the sixth round. You want to see some guys go in the top three rounds?

Glenn: And Deion's message, I know we've talked a lot about Deion, but he's the one who is really, really being very vocal at this point about HBCUs and the media coverage. His message is getting out to players. The number one overall college recruit and the class of 2022, Travis Hunter, flipped from being committed to Florida State to Jackson State. Here's what he had to say.

Hunter: Not enough of our Black brothers goes to HBCU. And now I think they just have to go to a PWI (predominantly white institution) to get those votes that they need. So I wanted them to know they're accepted at an HBCU, too.

Glenn: And Langston on NPR, they cited a Sports Illustrated reporter and their reporter called Hunter's decision, quote, the most shocking decision in the history of college football recruiting.

Wertz Jr.: Gwen, it kind of was. It's just not often that the No. recruit in the country spurns Power Five programs like Florida State, Auburn, Georgia to choose Jackson State. And if more kids follow Hunter, more get drafted, I think you could see a shift a little bit in recruiting and top players choosing HBCUs on a much more regular basis.

Glenn: So Langston, we've talked about football and HBCUs getting more attention. Do you think this will translate to other HBCU sports? For instance, North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro has one of the top track and field programs in the country that, until this June, was led by Olympian Duane Ross. Their male and female athletes, they've done well in the Olympics, but they don't get a lot of media attention and other HBCU sports as well.

Wertz Jr.: I don't think that's going to happen. I think basketball certainly could have a football-level jump for HBCUs, that takes fewer players to change the program's fortune.

Glenn: And Langston your paper's parent company McClatchy has entered into a partnership with Game Day, which will give HBCUs more coverage nationally. Tell us about the Game Day partnership.

Wertz Jr.: That's going to allow their coverage to be seen in McClatchy, which is one of the biggest newspaper companies in the country and has a lot of eyeballs. So I think it's a win-win for McClatchy because we can serve our readers a little bit better. It's a win-win for ABC News because they get their content in front of more people.

Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.