When the University of California at Los Angeles ended up with two openings in a football schedule set years in advance, it filled them with teams it had never played in the sport: historically Black colleges Alabama State University and North Carolina Central University.
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The University of Notre Dame invited Tennessee State University for next year’s home opener in South Bend’s 77,000-seat stadium after a showdown with longtime Irish rival Navy was moved to Ireland. It’s the first time Notre Dame’s football program will play one of the historically Black colleges and universities.
For HBCUs, taking on a football powerhouse provides an influx of cash and broad national exposure, perks that can make it easy to overlook the likelihood that they’ll get trounced on the field. The bigger schools get to plug a hole in their seasons – thereby scoring ticket revenue and honoring TV-rights agreements.
Tennessee State, coached by 1995 Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George, will receive $1 million for what’s called a game guarantee, when schools typically pay a lower-division team outside their conference to fill a home-schedule opening.
Alabama State will get $590,000 for its Sept. 10 game against UCLA’s Bruins. N.C. Central will nab $700,000 for playing the California squad the following year, its largest guarantee.
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“The revenue we’ll be generating will be huge. I don’t want to say it’s essential for our survival, but it’s very, very important,’’ said Louis “Skip” Perkins, N.C. Central’s athletic director.
That’s because the school of about 8,000 students in Durham supports 15 teams on a tight yearly athletic budget of about $13 million.
Constrained financial resources are common at HBCUs, especially many public ones in the South that missed out for decades on funding they were owed. Even covering capital expenses such as upgrading heating systems and dormitories has been challenging, as have scholarships for students who are often low-income or first in their families to attend college.
The football games could help boost these schools’ profiles, building on momentum from a wave of interest and donations that were spurred by the recent racial reckoning in the U.S.
‘Strength of schedule’
HBCU football teams haven’t sparred as often in recent years because “strength of schedule’’ is an important factor in a ranking that determines which teams go to the college playoffs.
Some games have been blowouts: In 2013, Ohio State University beat Florida A&M University 76-0, and Savannah State lost to Oklahoma State 84-0 in 2012.
When the University of Michigan canceled a pair of games, Martin Jarmond, UCLA’s first Black athletic director, sought HBCUs to fill the void.
It wasn’t just about bringing HBCU athletes to the Rose Bowl: He saw value in providing a platform for the storied marching bands that will perform in the stadium.
“I thought it would be a good experience for our students and our fans,” Jarmond said. “That’s why we’re in higher education: to have diverse experiences.”
In fact, UCLA’s contracts with the HBCUs stipulate that their bands will play at the game, underscoring how halftime-show pageantry is an important part of the appeal.
The $1 million that Tennessee State will receive to play Notre Dame is the largest guarantee in the history of TSU’s football program. The athletic director for the Fighting Irish has said that his TSU counterpart successfully “negotiated for a bigger guarantee than we budgeted.”
The figure is a rare feat for an HBCU. Willis Jones, an associate professor at the University of Miami, co-authored a study this year that found HBCUs received significantly less money than other schools to participate in guarantee games in basketball, after considering a variety of factors.
Interest in playing HBCUs shows that schools are looking “to live up to the ideals of the statements that they put out (in recent years) regarding race and racism,’’ Jones said.
The Notre Dame game allows TSU players to “showcase their talents and represent Tennessee State in front of millions,” said Mikki Allen, TSU’s athletic director. When recruits come to campus, “we can show them our schedule and say we’ll be playing Notre Dame in 2023.”
But not everyone agrees these games are a good idea, especially when they result in blowouts. Deion Sanders, the Pro and College Hall of Famer who coaches at HBCU Jackson State University, has said a lopsided matchup “helps the budget but kills the morale.”
Plus, the financial gains for HBCUs are tempered by the cost of taking the students and staff on the road.
Alabama State Athletic Director Jason Cable said he expects most of the UCLA game revenue will be gobbled up by the expense of bringing more than 100 players and coaches and about 250 marching band members to California. His school will net more from some home games.
College football schedules are changing with the rise of bigger conferences. UCLA will switch to the Big Ten in 2024. Depending on the number of intra-conference games that schools are required to play per season, that could limit availability.
Still, there could soon be a different incentive to arrange such matchups: HBCUs are recruiting coveted athletes. (In an earlier era, when non-white players were less welcome at other schools, HBCUs produced NFL stars such as the late Chicago Bears Super Bowl champion running back Walter Payton, who played for Jackson State.)
TSU has recently snapped up transfers who have played at Ohio State and the University of Georgia, and Jackson State in December lured top-ranked high school recruit Travis Hunter away from Florida State. That’s been called one of the most significant recent signings in college football.