A Ripple Effect

Hampton’s move to the Big South will affect the historically black Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

November 28, 2017
 
Hampton University football

Hampton University’s decision to leave the historically black Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference has prompted questions about the ripple effect on the league, its institutions and HBCU athletics as a whole.

Last week, Hampton announced it would join the more visible and wealthier Big South Conference in July 2018, a change intended to raise the athletic profile of one of the most academically successful historically black colleges and universities. News reports indicated that the university has been in talks with the Big South for years, and Hampton's president, William Harvey, has been characterized as long wanting to advance the profile of Hampton athletics and the institution over all.

Hampton officials said the move would cut down on travel time and expenses for Hampton's athletics department and its players, citing the fact that Big South institutions are located in Virginia -- as is Hampton -- as well as North Carolina and South Carolina. The Mid-Eastern league spans the East Coast, from Delaware to Florida, but Big South members are also located in New Jersey and Georgia, too. 

With the shift, MEAC loses one of its most well-funded members -- Hampton’s athletics budget, $13.8 million in the 2015-16 academic year, more closely resembles those of potential rivals in the Big South. And Hampton has some of the better facilities in the MEAC.

Hampton also has established rivalries with Howard University and Norfolk State University that generate big revenue for the conference, said Jarrett Carter Sr., founder of HBCU Digest, a well-recognized news source on HBCUs.

But Hampton shouldn’t be treated as though it is absconding from MEAC, Carter said. Many institutions want to boost their profiles by transitioning to more prestigious leagues, and Hampton shouldn’t be criticized for doing the same.

“You owe it to your program, you owe it to your alumni, to position in such a way to grow the athletic brand,” Carter said.

Carter acknowledged that the MEAC would likely take a hit over losing Hampton, which he said jokingly is referred to as the Duke University of the league for the quality of its program and its status as a private institution.

But this allows MEAC to highlight some of its stars at other institutions and allow other rivalries to blossom, he said. Instead of relying on a couple of universities to carry the league, this change enables MEAC to become much more competitive among the remaining teams, Carter said.

“It’s not a cultural betrayal,” he said. “This is a great school that’s trying to grow, and every school should get a chance to do that.”

Alumni have been mixed over the move, Harry Minium, a sports columnist for The Virginian-Pilot, wrote in a recent article.

Some have cheered their alma mater’s move to a league with “better football and basketball and a better TV presence,” though Minium characterized it as only “a marginal step.”

Other fans have been miffed that Hampton departed an HBCU league. Tennessee State University is the only other National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I HBCU not in a historically black league. It’s a member of the Ohio Valley Conference.

“Some of the vibe synonymous with HBCU sports will be lost, especially come basketball tournament time,” Minium wrote. “The Big South and MEAC tournaments offer vastly different experiences. Personally, I prefer the bands, the cheerleaders, the energy in the MEAC to most other midmajor tournaments. And do HU officials really think basketball games with High Point, Winthrop and USC Upstate, or football games with Campbell, Monmouth and Kennesaw State, will jazz the home crowd? I think not.”

It will take several seasons for Hampton to develop the rivalries that existed before and generate hype about them, Carter said.

Bijan Bayne is a recognized sports author and a founder of the proposed Historical Basketball League, a league that could pay athletes and that would do away with the NCAA’s notion of amateurism. He said the contemporary NCAA system does not benefit historically black institutions. Prior to integration, HBCUs banded together in these conferences because they could attract blue-chip players. Now, the HBCU leagues have lost some of their clout because black players are recruited and in demand, Bayne said. More than half of the football players in the Power 5 conferences are black.

Hampton has long been a part of the MEAC, after moving from the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1995. MEAC will also lose Savannah State University, which will drop to NCAA Division II.

The vote to admit Hampton was unanimous, according to the Big South.

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