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As membership losses mount, the MEAC is in huge trouble

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A look back...and a frightening look ahead

NCAA Basketball: MEAC Tournament-Norfolk State vs North Carolina Central Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

COVID-19 has brought most of the athletic world to a halt. Just not in the MEAC. Earlier this month, Florida A&M announced its departure for the SWAC. Now, the Rattlers’ rival is following as well. Bethune-Cookman will join the SWAC, effective July 1, 2021.

With these announcements and North Carolina A&T headed to the Big South, the MEAC is on the brink of disaster. The MEAC has hired a consulting firm to help assess its current situation and, as stated by commissioner Dennis Thomas on a media call Friday, the league is exploring its options.

What’s happened

If you’re new to this situation or need a refresher, here it is: As of 2021, the MEAC will have lost six member schools since 2010 and five since 2018.

Winston-Salem State in 2010: Moved back to Division II
Hampton in 2018: Moved to the Big South
Savannah State in 2019: Moved back to Division II
North Carolina A&T in 2021: Moving to the Big South
Florida A&M in 2021: Moving to the SWAC
Bethune-Cookman in 2021: Moving to the SWAC

Hampton leaving the MEAC in 2018 was a hot-button topic. But through the drama, Hampton is showing that HBCUs can thrive in other conferences. We’ll get back to that point later. Fast forward to now, three more schools have also given the MEAC their leaving papers.

North Carolina A&T is the largest public HBCU in the country. Florida A&M is big as well and its fanbase was one of the tops in the MEAC.

So within a decade, the MEAC lost institutions that stretched their market to the south, brought national attention and had winning traditions in various sports.

And in terms of qualifications, this puts the MEAC in jeopardy. As of 2021, the MEAC will have five baseball members. That will start a two-year clock to find a sixth member that would allow the league to keep its automatic NCAA Tournament bid.

Distance Issues

Money dictates decisions in college athletics. It’s no secret. For many smaller programs, that means travel costs are a significant concern. This creates a massive issue for the MEAC. The MEAC stretches from Delaware to Florida. Instead of bus rides and day trips, many programs are faced with flights and long travel schedules. This costs money, and keeps players away from their classrooms.

A prime example: Florida A&M

The longest trip is Florida A&M to Delaware State — nearly 1,000 miles and over 14 hours by bus. In a report given to the Florida A&M Board of Trustees, FAMU Athletics produced a pair of charts to show how a move to the SWAC would ease its travel burden.

When looking at this chart, the biggest difference is in travel time estimates. As of right now, FAMU averages around 10 hours of travel time in MEAC play. But in SWAC play, that time goes down to around five hours. Another travel benefit that the SWAC provides is divisional play. There’s even less travel and more time for athletes to be in class. Therefore, FAMU would save $400,000 in travel each year and travel 30 percent less.

Money is saved, but also, the SWAC provides more revenue than the MEAC. Firstly, the conference provides $400,00 more in its revenue distribution to its members, according to FAMU’s presentation. FAMU will have an opportunity to receive nearly double the amount of sports sponsorship and special opportunity fund distribution that what they received in the MEAC.

The report also noted that the SWAC offers additional revenue opportunities of around $1.4 million in areas like sponsorship and licensing. In 2019, that category accounted for 8.4 percent of overall revenue for the SWAC, with four schools gaining over $1 million. The SWAC’s geographic footprint creates more opportunities for profit as well. Southern, Jackson State, Alabama State, and Alabama A&M are all less than 460 miles away from FAMU’s campus. The close proximity of travel can easily translate to higher ticket sales, concessions, parking, and even lodging in the local area. This is a major benefit of the smaller geographic reach the conference provides.

Expect more moves

The remaining MEAC members are Coppin State, Delaware State, Howard, UMES, Morgan State, Norfolk State, NC Central, and South Carolina State. This leaves five northern schools and three schools in the south if you count Norfolk State as the south. For now.

Delaware State is rumored to be in talks to move to the NEC, which, as its name suggests, is more northeastern-focused.

The Maryland bunch of Morgan State, Coppin State, and Maryland Eastern Shore are in a weird situation. The Maryland region can fit in either a southern-based conference or a northern-based conference geographically. What makes it a little more interesting is that Coppin State and UMES are the smallest schools in the MEAC. Both schools are a little bit under 3,500 students each. This brings up the question of some remaining MEAC schools dropping back down to Division II.

For Morgan State and Howard, there are a few options such as the: Patriot League, Big South, NEC, and CAA. Many fans feel like the Patriot League would be a great fit for Howard since it’s a private school. Morgan State seems like a great fit for the Big South or CAA.

Norfolk State and NC Central are in similar positions. Their respective rivals, Hampton and North Carolina A&T, left for the Big South. NSU and NCCU would fit perfectly in the conference. And of course, the rivalries are something the Big South would want.

Outside of Delaware State, all projections above are merely hypothetical. But of course, there’s a lot of chatter in the air. And even more chatter when speaking about possible additions to the conference. The MEAC might look at the CIAA, an all-HBCU conference in Division II. But an issue is the fee it takes to join D-I. Howard President Wayne Fredericks, the lead of the MEAC’s Council of CCEOs, he acknowledges that the initial transition fee is $1.6 million.

A new future for HBCU sports

The MEAC and SWAC were created during a time when Black athletes couldn’t go to just any school. This was at the beginning of integration. Decades later, we have all seen the benefits in diversifying campuses and rosters.

But HBCUs were left behind. The MEAC and SWAC thrived because that historical culture was kept alive. Plus programs could compete against like-minded competition. The time for comfortability has timed out for a few programs.

Thomas claimed that schools “leaving the MEAC became elite in the MEAC.” But HBCUs are more than just athletics. It’s the culture they provide and the platform of excellence that’s still standing to this day. It’s not the conference that’s making the schools, it’s the schools that add credibility to the MEAC. Due to the current social climate, we are seeing increases in enrollment and national interest in HBCUs. So with this wave of attention, programs are looking for more.

This issue pertains to in-house as well. Thomas has been in his role for 18 years now. That’s a long time. During the Friday media call, however, he offered few plans of action, giving the media bits of history rather than solutions.

For example, this quote was in the MEAC’s press release when speaking about BCU’s departure:

“The MEAC has been a transformative and dynamic conference in its nearly 50 years, and we look forward to an even brighter future.”

There’s nothing bright about losing founding members of a conference. Between Hampton, NC A&T, Florida A&M, and now Bethune-Cookman departing, there’s really no set plan in place to keep more members from leaving. There’s a difference between reactive leadership and proactive leadership. And sadly, it’s been quite reactionary for a long time. Fans are proud of the history, but fans also want a stable foundation to make more history in the future.

With the lack of a clear vision from conference leadership, a not-so-favorable media contract, lack of profit from the gameday experience, and just greener pastures elsewhere, the MEAC is in deep trouble.