There are 21 universities snaking their way from Maryland across the Southeast to east Texas comprising the MEAC and SWAC conferences, collectively known as HBCU programs. And nearly all of them are drowning.
In an excellent report this week for ESPN.com, Mark Schlabach details the myriad of ways HBCUs have deteriorated from a proud corner of college football to the bottom tier of Division I in nearly every metric. Eleven of the 21 schools operate on athletics budgets of less than $10 million; three-time FCS defending national champion North Dakota State runs on an $18.8 million budget. Eleven of the schools were penalized by the NCAA for poor academic performance. Only two players from HBCU schools were selected in the 2013 NFL Draft, up from one in 2012. As a group, MEAC and SWAC schools went 20-55 in non-conference play over the course of the 2013 season; 10 teams failed to win a game outside of conference play, 19 lost at least twice, and only North Carolina A&T posted an undefeated record outside of its league schedule.
Of course, the loss column is certain to inflate thanks to guaranteed pay-day games from major FBS schools. Unfortunately, that revenue stream appears to be drying up.
"It is kind of unchartered waters with strength of schedule being what's going to be looked at," Southwestern Athletic Conference commissioner Duer Sharp told ESPN. "Our schools just have to be smart. There are different ways to make money, and you've got to be smart about it.
"It's a huge disadvantage. For schools with the small budgets, you're even more locked into guaranteed games. Not only in football and men's basketball but even in women's basketball. You're asking the women's basketball team to go on the road to generate money."
Sharp said the SWAC has turned to neutral site "classic" games as a way to generate revenue, but nothing can fully replace the budget boost of a trip to Tallahassee or Miami.
Many HBCUs have felt the ill effects of reduced state funding, which in turn shortens the financial depth of their athletics departments. Grambling State was the most extreme example this season, where the Tigers players went on strike and ultimately forfeited a game in protest of the program's equipment and facilities.
If financial viability becomes an unmanageable fight for these football programs, you have to wonder where that leaves their athletics departments and, in turn, their universities.