HBCU DIGEST: For HBCUs, yesterday's price is sadly today's price and probably tomorrow's, too.

High profiles voices in two strong HBCU communities had their say last week over the value of a long-standing football classic that was on the verge of being canceled. But, ultimately, who weighed in and the war of words didn’t matter; contract law ruled the day for Jackson State University, Tenessee State University, and their confirmed participation in the Southern Heritage Football Classic in September

The dispute was based on different ideas of HBCU’s worth in the sports marketplace. For Jackson State, playing in Black college football classics with lower-than-expected financial benefit is no longer an option

“These classics aren’t beneficial for us,” [JSU Head Coach Deion] Sanders told The Undefeated. “The fans can kick and scream all they want, but they have to understand we’re doing business in the SWAC [Southwestern Athletic Conference].”

Tennessee State President Glenda Baskin Glover took a different approach in a public letter

“The Memphis business community, including small Black-owned businesses, many of which are mom and pop businesses, will suffer incalculable damage. These businesses rely on contracts that are generated as a result of activities associated with the game and purchase supplies and other items in preparation for this annual event.”

The sector is at a crossroads. A question of how much the HBCU brand could leverage for individual schools and the community has evolved into how the HBCU brand can redefine and re-price itself against previous standards. 

Every company that does business with HBCUs makes more money off of Black college social, athletic, and musical culture than the HBCUs themselves. Honda, Home Depot, McDonald’s, and Coca-Cola are just a few of the brands that have profited handsomely from co-opting HBCU lifestyle as an element of multicultural engagement.

For years, HBCUs have been more than satisfied with pennies on the dollar and millions in exposure that never quite turned into a corporate windfall for the institutions. 

But since the murder of George Floyd, the rise of Black consciousness, and the arrival of Deion Sanders, HBCUs are looking for more. They are looking for their current worth to be honored and extra for how they were shorted in the past. That’s more than reasonable to expect, except when contracts reflect the old standards of breaking HBCUs off. 

Sanders told the Undefeated that Jackson State made about $6.3 million in 28 years of playing in the Southern Heritage Classic, good for just under $215,000 per appearance. Now that JSU can command millions from a single match-up, they want out of the contract that makes sense for the culture but not nearly enough dollars for the cause. 

So what happens when HBCUs figure out that not only have HBCU football classics been underpaying them, but so has Honda, Home Depot, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, ESPN, and every other corporate brand with which they’ve ever put pen to paper? 

For schools that have always been NCAA attendance leaders, tourism drivers, and economic boosters in Black communities nationwide, what are the contract terms with a sector now drawing more public interest and more corporate and philanthropic support than it ever has?

Will corporate partners go out of their way to honestly match the new market value of HBCUs, or will they simply say “we have a deal?”

JSU and Tennessee State will play this fall because the contract can’t be broken and attorneys on all sides knew it. They were more than willing to snipe at each other publicly about the value of their contract, but will they and other HBCUs do the same with white-owned networks and corporate partners cutting them out of hard-earned riches? 

If the HBCU brand is as big as it has ever been but we’re still locked into small-time deals, do we really have the weight we actually think we’re carrying?

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