HBCU football programs attract more attention and talent | WFAE 90.7

It’s football season, and football programs at historically black colleges and universities are getting more and more media attention these days. That’s still not a lot compared to majority colleges and universities, but it’s growing. Media deals are in the works, 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 longtime sportswriter with the Charlotte Observer.

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

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

Glen: Do you have any idea how many people watch online or, as you said, sometimes when it’s on TV?

Wertz Jr.: I haven’t seen any reviews. I know, Gwen, HBCU Legends, a service that covers HBCU, the new streaming service, reaches nearly 60% of American households and 70% of black households in that league. For example, they’re going to air Arkansas Pine Bluff at Alcorn State.

Glen: So when you hear about deals like the seven-year, multi-billion dollar Big Ten media deal with FOX, CBS, and NBC, that might not sound like a big deal, but that’s 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, Gwenn. So this is the start for HBCUs to get some of that TV pie they haven’t always gotten.

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

Sanders: I like where we are with our program, and I’m trying to ignite other programs simultaneously. So when I’m on stage talking, I’m not just talking about Jackson State, I’m talking about all of HBCU and all of SWAC, you know, like black college football in general.

Wertz Jr. Well, Gwenn, Deion is accelerating an HBCU arms race, if you’re going to be honest about it. He raised Jackson State’s recruiting level. Her name and social media brand has helped attract the biggest and best recruiting class she has ever had. In 2021, they went 11 and one in their freshman year and they won the conference for the first time since 2007. They, too, Gwen, averaged 42,000 fans per game and major networks took notice.

Glen: Well, too, 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. The 32 teams showed up in Mobile, Alabama to evaluate 39 prospects out of 22 teams, four of which were drafted.

Sanders: My desire is 7 to 10 players just this year in the draft. Then we’ll try to double it and double it, and then the sky will be the limit.

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

Glen: And Deion’s message, I know we’ve talked about Deion a lot, but he’s the one who’s really, really vocal at this point about HBCUs and media coverage. His message goes to the players. The number one college freshman overall and the Class of 2022, Travis Hunter, moved from his Florida State commitment to Jackson State. Here’s what he had to say.

Hunter: Not enough of our black brothers go to HBCU. And now I think they just have to go to a PWI (predominantly white institution) to get the votes they need. So I wanted them to know that they are also accepted into an HBCU.

Glen: And Langston on NPR, they quoted a Sports Illustrated reporter and their reporter called Hunter’s decision, quote, the most shocking decision in college football recruiting history.

Wertz Jr.: Gwen, it kind of was. It’s not often that the # rookie in the country rejects Power Five programs like Florida State, Auburn, Georgia to choose Jackson State. And if more kids follow Hunter, more get drafted, I think you might see a little change in recruiting and top players picking HBCUs on a much more regular basis.

Glen: So Langston, we talked about football and HBCUs getting more attention. Do you think this will translate to other HBCU sports? For example, North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro offers one of the best track and field programs in the country, which until last June was led by Olympian Dwayne Ross. Their male and female athletes have done well in the Olympics, but they don’t get much attention from the media and other HBCU sports.

Wertz Jr.: I don’t think that will happen. I think basketball could definitely have a jump to the level of football for HBCUs, which takes fewer players to change the fortunes of the program.

Glen: And the length in your newspaper’s parent company, McClatchy, has partnered with Game Day, which will give HBCUs more national coverage. Tell us about the Game Day partnership.

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