There has been unprecedented exposure the past 20 months for Southwestern Athletic Conference football, and it’s easy to point to Jackson State coach Deion Sanders, stalwart Alcorn coach Fred McNair, high-profile new Grambling hire Hue Jackson and former NFL standout Bubba McDowell taking over at Prairie View A&M as among the biggest reasons.
Just don’t overlook fourth-year SWAC commissioner Dr. Charles McClelland, who recently was named Chair of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee for 2023-24 and has positioned his conference for continued growth in terms of both exposure and revenue disbursement.
So with college athletics’ landscape dramatically shifting each of the past two summers – see the Southeastern Conference raiding the Big 12; ditto for the Big Ten to the Pac-12 – McClelland knows his league is well-positioned for future viability.
“I think we’ve proven we’re in the forefront with FAMU and Bethune-Cookman [coming to the SWAC],” McClelland said at the league’s annual media days event July 21. “We’ve said time and time again we do not want to be reactionary.
“As the commissioner, it’s my responsibility to ensure our schools are comfortable. We had our largest distribution on record this year for our sports, we are anticipating unprecedented growth and we are going to be top-3 (at their level) as far as resources from a conference standpoint.
“By 2030 we’re anticipating for our revenue actually to surpass at least two FBS conferences. The strength of our league and growth of our league has really put us in a unique and unprecedented position where we are now distributing money back to our schools and getting unprecedented exposure. That puts you right in that sweet spot of where you want to be on conference expansion.”
Last summer the SWAC formally welcomed in both Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M, boosting its membership roster to a dozen institutions.
With McClelland’s aggressive, proactive work for the league, the SWAC also is scheduled to have nearly 30 football games – 29 to be precise – televised this season on the ESPN family of networks.
Understandably, McClelland feels his conference is in a spot to flourish; likewise, he acknowledges perhaps even greater climbs on the horizon – not ruling out a leap to Football Bowls Subdivision competition among them.
“I would say this, in the current NCAA structure, there is nothing from a bylaw perspective that would allow that [ascension to FBS] to happen, but quite frankly when you generate the type of revenue we’re looking to generate, it puts you in a separate category,” McClelland said. “Through this new NCAA restructuring, we are hoping there is going to be a path forward. I have said this before and I want to be extremely clear, we want to keep our schools together.
“Once we get to a certain point, if it is beneficial to move up together, yes, that has been a part of our 15-year strategic plan. But there’s a lot that has to happen. We have a tradition that has lasted 101 years. We are kind of already in that FBS model where play a competitive schedule and look to get to the Celebration Bowl.
“A lot that has to be done for a conference to move up to an FBS conference, but it is on our list of things to look at.”
What McClelland likewise vows is that the SWAC isn’t going to be coerced into knee-jerk expansion.
“I’ve seen and heard talk about an HBCU ‘super-conference,’” McClelland said. “I already view us as a super-conference. We have every major Division I (HBCU) school from Texas to Florida. We don’t want to stretch from sea to shining sea. Our schools cannot afford that. If we bring in someone, it’s going to be someone that fits our academic profile, what we are about in the SWAC.
“Expanding just for the sake of expanding, that experiment has already been done and we know how that ends. It ends by teams leaving the conference.”
The SWAC kicks off its 2022 season Aug. 27 in a Week Zero game featuring Alabama State battling Howard in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge, a game that is scheduled to be televised on ESPN (7 p.m.).