The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference will divide its regular-season conference football title between three teams this year – Bethune-Cookman University, North Carolina Central University and North Carolina A&T State University. The latter of the list will represent the conference in the inaugural Celebration Bowl next month in Atlanta.
But for Wildcats and Eagles fans who watched their teams each win at least eight games this year, it appears that Celebration Bowl may have been a ticket into annual national exposure for the MEAC and SWAC champions, but snubs for its very good runners-up.
The 2015 NCAA FCS Playoffs will not feature a team from an historically black college, a tournament which for many years solely featured the MEAC champion as an automatic qualifier, and since 1999, hasn’t included any teams from the SWAC, which opted out to accommodate its signature Bayou Classic and SWAC championship games.
The Celebration Bowl, an NCAA-sanctioned bowl game that will officially kick off college football’s bowl season in mid-December with the promise of enhanced marketing and revenue opportunities for both conferences, appears to be the apex of exposure and profitability when it comes to postseason HBCU football. In an interview with HBCUSports.com, Tennessee Tech Athletic Director and FCS Tournament Selection Committee Chairman Mark Wilson said that strength of schedule and a lack of advocacy on the committee itself had everything to do with HBCUs being scratched from national title contention.
“We looked at all the data,” said Wilson, Tennessee Tech’s athletic director. “Nothing against those programs, or their schedules or anything. It’s just we felt like we selected the very best teams to be in the championships…
The SWAC and MEAC, along with the Ivy League, do not have representation on the selection committee. Wilson said representation is only available to those conferences that elect to have automatic qualifiers to the playoffs.
Six of the MEAC’s 11 teams won four games or fewer this year; in the SWAC, five out of ten. If the healthiest part of any regular season schedule is made up of cupcakes, there’s little reason to expect that the NCAA, or member schools serving on its behalf, would consider HBCUs to be a part of its postseason football product.
Especially when HBCU representatives aren’t at the table which selects the at-large bids to begin with.
So while the MEAC and SWAC may have one of the season’s biggest stages to showcase their champions, there is no reward for chasing a good season beyond competing for a conference title and a trip to ATL. Was that part of the thinking when the Celebration Bowl was conceptualized? The losing streak of MEAC at-large qualifiers? The absence of the SWAC and the fan bases which typically travel with member teams? The ‘everybody wins’ culture surrounding HBCU teams competing for a no-longer-mythical black college football national title?
Or was it the notion that a postseason bowl appealed as the most consistent revenue source for schools which cannot depend on alumni or corporate support to help earn coaching and player talent, and additional resources?
The Celebration Bowl’s profitability and appeal to casual fans will depend on the buy-in of today’s fans, the same fans whose lack of buy-in for regular season and playoff football helped to lead the way to Atlanta in the first place. Here’s hoping we meet the opportunity, as it may be the last, and best, chance we have to grow the MEAC and SWAC as respectable Division I football options.