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Not Exactly for the Sport of It

Not Exactly for the Sport of It

One Black college football conference opts for the money, the other for a chance at a national championship.

When it comes to post-season play in college football, the historically Black conferences that compete at the National Collegiate Athletics Association Division I level stand at opposite ends of the spectrum.
The Southwestern Athletic Conference, which has a rich history of producing NFL-bound talent, has opted to skip the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs, thereby denying its teams any opportunity to compete for a national championship. Instead, the conference holds a championship game, featuring division winners from the regular season. The winners of the championship game earn a berth in the Heritage Bowl, a game that was originally intended to be a “Black College Super Bowl.”
Because of the timing of the SWAC  championship game, which was played for the first time last year, none of the conference teams were eligible to participate in the NCAA playoffs. These national Division I-AA  playoffs start on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, while the SWAC championship is played in early December, a week before the I-AA championship final.
   Prior to having its own championship game, the SWAC, winless in 19 trips to the playoffs, was still not a regular in the NCAA’s post-season setting. Jackson State’s 1997 team was the last SWAC school to make a playoff appearance. Southern University, which has dominated the conference in recent years, has been a frequent no-show in the playoffs because it never changed the date of its financially-lucrative Bayou Classic match-up against Grambling State University. That game, played in the New Orleans Superdome, is always played on the same Saturday that the playoffs begin.
The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, on the other hand, has adopted a different stance. The league embraces the NCAA playoffs and has mandated that its regular-season champion and any team receiving an at-large bid compete in the playoffs. In ’99, the conference’s champion — North Carolina A&T — and runner-up Florida A&M accepted playoff bids. As a result, third-place Hampton University became the MEAC’s designated representative to play SWAC champion Southern University in the Heritage Bowl.
The SWAC approach to post-season has created a stir in Black college football circles. The voices of the naysayers, however, haven’t swayed the thinking of SWAC commissioner Rudy Washington. He believes participating in the SWAC championship game works in the best interest of his league.
It is no secret the I-AA playoffs are not a big money maker. The NCAA does pay expenses for playoff participants to cover a specified number of people — 100 per team for the first three rounds of the playoffs, 115 per team for the championship game. Hosting a playoff game, however, is costly. Host teams must pay the NCAA a guarantee — $30,000 for the first round, $40,000 for quarterfinals and $50,000 for semifinals. In case there’s any shortfall, schools have to dip into their athletic budgets to make up the difference.
In Washington’s mind, skipping the national playoffs and generating positive cash flow with a league championship game is not a matter of being rebellious. It’s all about dollars.
“The decision was based strictly on economics,” he says. “In the SWAC, there’s great fan support, so we decided to turn that into dollars with a SWAC championship game. When you look at the history of the [I-AA]playoffs, it speaks volumes. Our schools haven’t fared well and you don’t make any money, not even in the championship game.
“I have yet to come across any sensible rationale for us going to the I-AA playoffs. Some schools go to the playoffs and actually lose money. There’s nothing wrong with playing for a national championship. But it all comes down to answering one question: Do you want to play for prestige, or do you want to play for the money?”
Washington builds a compelling case for his league by comparing attendance figures with other college football championships. The SWAC game, played at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., drew 47,000 fans — second only to the Southeast Conference championship played in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. SWAC teams will all get a slice of the championship game proceeds as part of a league-wide revenue sharing plan.
“I think we’ve proved our point about what SWAC has to do to help itself financially,” Washington says. “Our championship game had more people than any of the I-AA playoffs games. And we outdrew the championships for the Big 12 and Mid-American Conference. That says a lot.”  
Ken Riley, Florida A&M athletics director and member of the Division I-AA football championship cabinet committee, has no qualms about any league taking steps to bolster itself financially.
“It’s a tough situation for some schools,” Riley says. “As a committee, we’ve started looking into ways that we can get more people involved in the playoffs.  To get teams interested in competing, the playoffs have to be more attractive financially. Helping that to come about has been a slow process.
“It would be nice if we could find some way where teams could make money and still go to the playoffs. But money is the driving force here. That’s the reality we all have to face.”
Florida A&M coach Billy Joe has been a longtime advocate of competing at the highest level. When Joe was being courted for the Florida job, six years ago, he insisted that the school switch dates for the Florida Classic, the annual showdown game against arch rival Bethune-Cookman College. The game date was moved up a week and is played the week before Thanksgiving. The switch hasn’t harmed the gate. In ’98, the game drew 65,000-plus; last year attendance topped the 70,000 mark.
 “It’s unfortunate that SWAC has taken away from their players the opportunity to play for a national championship because of the restructuring to divisional play and a conference championship game,” says Joe, whose team advanced to the I-AA semifinal round before losing to Youngstown State by three points.
“True, Black colleges haven’t had much success getting past the first round of the playoffs. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have the ability to win a national championship. We have to keep pursuing and be persistent about it. Hopefully, sometime in the near future, SWAC’s players and coaches will get that opportunity. I believe that players will tell you that given a choice, they’d rather play for a national championship. Oftentimes, the powers that be don’t take into consideration the concerns and wishes of the players.” 

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