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Marketing Black College Sports

If you don’t have an Eddie Robinson up your sleeve, you’d better be very creative in your marketing.

Robinson Stadium in Grambling, La., home of the Grambling State University Tigers, seats 23,000. The city population barely tops 4,000 and there are only 5,000 students at the university. The Tigers averaged more than 30,000 in attendance for their eight home games last season. Nice trick.

The trick is, Grambling has a head football coach named Eddie Robinson, the man who has won more football games than any college coach in history. Together, Robinson and Grambling are the most marketable names in black college sports today, a big enough attraction that sports promoters across the country seek them out to headline their events.

Of their eight “home” games last season, the Tigers played five at neutral sites, drawing an average of 42,972 in places as far-flung as Los Angeles and East Rutherford, N.J. Topping the list was the annual Bayou Classic, which drew 60,474 in the Superdome in New Orleans. Co-sponsored by Grambling and Southern University (Baton Rouge) since 1974, the Classic pits the two archrivals against each other and has grown into the nation’s most successful sports event featuring black institutions.

This fall, Grambling will again play in five neutral-site events in major metropolitan areas and will be the “designated home team” in four of them. (It’s Southern’s turn to be the home team in the Bayou Classic.)

Neutral-site games are fast becoming a lucrative addition to the Tiger football program, which would be hard-pressed to rely solely on Grambling’s local population or the university’s enrollment for gate receipts. Other small schools face similar challenges in attracting a live gate. The problem is, all these other schools don’t have Eddie Robinson, and if you don’t have an Eddie Robinson up your sleeve, you’d better be very creative in your marketing.

Marketing, once a foreign concept in most college athletic programs, has become part of the everyday vocabulary of sports management. Unfortunately, below the highest levels of Division I competition, marketing is more often talked about than practiced effectively.

“I think what makes it especially challenging is that marketing is pretty much a new area of expertise for our black institutions,” says Philip McAlpin, president of Focus Marketing, a Greensboro, N.C., company that produces “Black College Sports Today,” a weekly program on ESPN.

Marketing seems to be a priority for most college athletic programs, in part because football attendance during the late 1980s either declined or—at best—leveled off, after decades of steady increase. Meanwhile, costs continue to rise.

Attendance problems have been most acutely felt at smaller institutions. Top Division I programs have the benefit of television revenue and corporate sponsorships to provide a financial buffer. With rare exceptions, small colleges and universities have neither the name nor the glamour to attract such support.

If you’re looking for a cause of lagging football attendance in the last half of the 1980s, you probably don’t have to look any further than the 1984 Supreme Court decision that outlawed the NCAA-negotiated television package. Under the NCAA plan, the number of football games on television was strictly controlled. Once the plan was struck down, weekends became saturated with major college games.

How do small college programs compete with Notre Dame-USC, Oklahoma-Nebraska and Alabama-Auburn? With tenacity, apparently.

“We’re not in the business of poor-mouthing,” says Ken Free, commissioner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. “We know what we’re competing against and we plan to meet whatever challenge there is. We’re just going to have to make a continuous effort to get out into the marketplace.”

The process of getting into the marketplace, as many have discovered, is often frustrating for its circularity: Without a name, it’s hard to get media exposure; without exposure, it’s hard to get a name.

Clarence “Big House” Gaines, the legendary basketball coach at Winston-Salem State University, blames the media for its preoccupation with big-name schools.

“If it’s not Division I, you’re going to get second-rate coverage,” says Gaines, who has won 806 games (second highest in college basketball history) at a Division II school.

Even Robinson, who received a flurry of media coverage in 1985 when he won his 324th game, surpassing Alabama’s Bear Bryant for first on the all-time win list, continues to labor in the relative obscurity of Division I-AA.

“Look at the media attention Eddie Robinson got (in 1985),” says Gaines. “Have you heard anything (in the media) about Eddie Robinson since then? There’s no way in the world that should be.”

Most small schools have suffered from the media drought in recent years. The MEAC’s Free points out that the loss of the NCAA television package cost small schools television exposure, since the contract guaranteed that a specified number of Division I-AA, II and III games would be televised by the networks. When the TV package was struck down, those schools also lost rights fees.

“Our conference’s last take (from the television contract in 1984) was $770,000,” says Free. “That was quite a jolt to us.”

More than other small schools, black colleges and universities have also suffered something of a setback in recent years. As Virginia State University Athletic Director Leon Bey points out in the accompanying article, desegregation has been a kind of good news-bad news story for the black community. The good news, of course, is that talented black student-athletes are now able to attend—in fact, they are heavily recruited to—predominantly white Division I schools. The bad news is that black institutions no longer can count on the talent pool of black athletes, who once had no choice but to attend black schools.

“There was a time when Big House (Gaines) went out recruiting and didn’t have to worry about Clemson, South Carolina and North Carolina,” says Walter Reed, athletic director at Florida A&M University. “The talent pool has not increased that much, but now you have a lot more people after those kids, and Big House doesn’t have the resources some of those other schools have.”

Part of the answer is more-sophisticated marketing, says Reed, who is chairman of the national Athletic Steering Committee, a decades-old organization designed to help black institutions deal with current issues.

Last year, the NASC began offering a marketing workshop at the organization’s annual meeting. Developed by Florida A&M Marketing Director Her Reinhard, the workshop apparently struck a chord and Reinhard “gets phone calls constantly,” says Reed. “He’s been sort of an unpaid consultant.”

Few black athletic programs have the resources to hire a full-time marketing professional, but, as Free says, “a continuous effort” is underway on several fronts:

McAlpin’s “Black College Sports Today” was the first attempt to put a program featuring the “big four” athletic conferences—the MEAC, Central Intercollegiate Athlete Association (CIAA), Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) and Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC)—on mainstream television. Last year, the program aired at 2:30 p.m. on Wednesdays—hardly prime time exposure. This year, the program will air at 3 p.m. on Thursdays, only a slight improvement, but McAlpin believes “we are making some progress.”

At least two attempts are underway to develop national basketball tournaments to showcase black college talent.

McAlpin is promoting the Black College Basketball Challenge, which will take place Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 in Greensboror. The tournament will feature North Carolina A&T and South Carolina Central, two regional archrivals, as well as Albany State and Mississippi Valley State.

A couple of hundred miles to the northeast and a month later, Virginia State University will host the first HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Univerities) Basketball Classic in Petersburg.

The MEAC has had modest success in attracting corporate sponsorships from Coca-Cola and Miller Brewing for conference championships. Each of the companies provides approximately $50,000 in cash and in-kind support.

All that falls well short of the megadeals Division I-A conferences and institutions are able to negotiate with networks and sponsors, but many of those most actively involved believe, as McAlpin does, that “we’re headed in the right direction.”

“All schools face basically the same challenges,” says Florida A&M’s Reed. “True, the extent of the challenge may be greater at some schools than at others. When you say, ‘Grambling,’ that gets a lot of people’s attention. When you say ‘Miles College,’ who knows? So Miles has to do a lot more promotion than Grambling and Grambling has to do a lot more promotion than Michigan. It’s all relative.”

“We’re just now getting people trained in marketing,” says Free. “I’m optimistic. We’re going to hang in there and make whatever adjustments are necessary.”

This article originally appeared in the September 1990 issue of Athletic Business.

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