Identifying the HBCU Athletics Problem (Part II)

Southern University Jaguars ready to take the field. (
  • Because college football is the primary revenue generator at participating HBCUs, that will largely be the focus of any comparisons that are made.

The 2016–2017 athletics season for HBCUs has the potential to be just like the 2015–2016 season: relatively lackluster. (Hear me out here.) I respect the effort that all of the student-athletes put into their appropriate sports. I want to congratulate the schools that won their conference championships and those that had postseason runs. But excluding a few bright spots, the recent HBCU athletics experience has been a traumatizing one. It is painful to see your alma mater play “money games” for supposedly the good of the program and then summarily thrashed 76–0. It hurts to fight to win your conference only to be swept away like dust on an old table in the regional tournament. Sure we have pride and legacy, but pride and legacy alone doesn’t improve your program, bring in additional revenue, or attract scores of new fans.

Previously I discussed HBCU athletic programs’ heavy reliance on money games for their sustainability. HBCUs compete in Division I — the FCS for football schools — and Division II. With the College Football Playoff now the end goal for FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) teams, many are limiting or altogether removing FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) opponents from their schedules. Because strength of schedule plays a part in the FCS rankings as well, I can see this trend trickling down to the Division II and III teams that play money games against FCS schools too. Referencing this USA Today table, a multi-million dollar removal can have devastating financial fallout to the institutions that depend on money games. Therefore, simply increasing home games isn’t enough and further action must be taken. Even with the constantly evolving landscape of collegiate athletics, one focus of the most successful programs has remained strong: effective brand management.

The Definition of a Brand

Don’t skim over this section. If you remember nothing else here, remember this:

Channeling my inner René Magritte.

The Nike swoosh is not a brand. It is a component of a brand, the logo to be specific. It is a representation of a brand, but by itself it is not a brand.

So we know what isn’t a brand…then what exactly makes up a brand? Brands are comprised of both physical and conceptual components.

Logos, slogans, and products make up the physical side, while awareness, perceptions, reviews, and positioning are on the conceptual side. All of these facets are vital to the well being of the brand. Let’s look at some non-sports logos, for example. The Apple logo evokes a sense of minimalism, cutting edge technology, sleekness, and quality. Regardless of where you fall in the PC v. Mac or Android v. iOS debate, these aforementioned characteristics are largely seen in the ads, slogans, products, and perceptions about Apple. Even if you personally don’t care for Apple, stockholders definitely care about $AAPL (stock price up almost 100% vs. 5 years ago).

The new Uber logo, on the other hand, may have actually been negative for the ride-sharing platform’s brand. Many are unsure of the connotation and didn’t even know it was for Uber (apparently it’s supposed to represents atoms and bits?). A possible cause of the branding slip-up could be due to this being an internal project as opposed to one completed by external specialists.

Before closing out this section, it is important to define what a brand is. There are several definitions for this, but I like Marty Neumeier’s the best. Neumeier, author of The Brand Gap, states that “A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or company.” He also gives a blunter definition: “It’s not what you say it is, it’s what THEY say it is. THEY could be literally anyone who interacts with your program. For athletic programs, this includes student-athletes, coaches, administration, fans, opponents, fans of the opponents, current students, prospective students, spectators, media, business owners, and various investors.

HBCUs & Brand Stability

Looking at each of the components, let’s see how HBCU athletic programs stack up.

  • Logos — By and large, there is a mixed bag of results concerning logos. Many schools have at the bare minimum an update to an older logo iteration (Bethune-Cookman, for example). Congratulations are in order to Howard University finally dropping the Buffalo Bills logo for a new visual identity. But, remember, the logo by itself is not the entire brand.
  • Slogans — A non-factor in most cases, some programs have taken on somewhat generic slogans that are commonplace elsewhere (#ALLIN, #BEARDOWN, etc.)
  • Product — HBCU sports are sometimes seen as a inferior product since the shift to other programs after racial integration. Even Samuel L. Jackson, a Morehouse grad, believes that HBCU matchups are “horrible”. He does like the bands though, if that’s a silver lining.
  • Awareness — Some key games stick out on HBCU schedules. These dates are usually Homecoming and sometimes a Classic game. While some fans may take a look at the schedule in advance, a great deal may wake up Saturday morning and ask “Who are we playing again?”
  • Reviews — If the awareness is low and the product is seen as inferior, one’s opinion may be slanted toward the negative. That’s not good for those potential fans looking for a first hand account.
  • Perception — After low awareness and shoddy reviews about the product (HBCU athletics) that others view as substandard, a negative mental image of the brand can be established. For example, if you’re looking for a great restaurant in an unfamiliar city, you may turn to Yelp. Now that you’re aware of your choices, you can read other’s reviews to see if it’s even worth your time. If you decide to check it out, you can gauge for yourself if the product is any good and worth a return visit.
  • Positioning — Succeeding at this is more of an art than simply something to check off of a list. Positioning is partially proactive and partially reactive, constantly monitoring what works and what doesn’t to manage the brand. Marketer Jack Trout put it best: differentiate or die. This key concept is where a majority of HBCUs fall flat. Allow me to explain.

Be Critical . . .

It is purely my opinion that HBCU athletic programs are resting on their laurels of yesteryear. Honestly, I can understand, respect, and appreciate the greatness present during those times. Florida A&M’s Division I-AA (FCS) title in 1978 and grand upset over the University of Miami in 1979, University of Maryland-Eastern Shore’s basketball mid 1970’s dominance, the sold out matchup of Morgan State and Grambling in 1968 at Yankee Stadium, the Cheyney (State) women’s basketball teams in the early 1980s, the legacies Steve McNair, Jerry Rice, Walter Peyton, and Eddie Robinson, and the accolades of many more across many sports are all worthy of praise.

Va. Union and Tuskegee were among a few of the bright spots for HBCU athletics during the 2015–2016 academic year. (Photos from and respectively.)

Ever since FAMU’s glorious postseason runs in the 1990s, HBCUs have largely seen limited to no success in (non-conference) postseason play across most sports. Recent notable exceptions include Tuskegee’s 2015 Div II Football playoff run and Virginia Union’s women’s basketball team that made it to the Elite 8 in the Women’s Div II Tournament. The subsequent decline of HBCU athletics has led to neutral to negative perceptions among high-caliber high-school student-athletes looking to continue their sports careers. (For instance, BCU is the only HBCU on this list ranking the top 30 FCS preseason recruiting classes.)

The lack of money is indeed a factor; I get that. It limits a lot what you can do throughout the year. However, money issues cannot be the end all be all, “oh we’re so helpless” rationale to readily run to. If we compare institution endowments, we can see some similarities between the amounts at HBCUs and other FCS and FBS schools.

While some HBCUs may have much smaller endowments than these, HBCU athletic successes have still been few and far between. (from Wikipedia and University websites)

Admittedly, some HBCUs do have lower endowments than those listed above, but the schools that I’ve compared them with on the right have seen successes that have largely evaded those on the left. Thus, it can be deduced, that there is either a reluctance for HBCUs to invest in their athletic programs or a substantial lack of available funds. Based on the previously linked USA Today article, we can see that the former is a strong possibility.

. . . but offer a solution

Now that we’ve highlighted the problem and we know that adjusting the positioning of the brand is one method to address it, how do we go about doing that? Great positioning takes a well orchestrated strategy and even better execution. I offer three steps that are highly actionable.

1. Increase Awareness

While this isn’t exactly rocket science, it is more than simply printing out game day flyers and posting them around campus. One may say, “We use Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Periscope.” Perhaps, but what is your return on the social media engagement? How many of those “likes” actually translates into fans at a game? Those aren’t just empty seats you see, that’s lost revenue!

Quality, bold, athlete-centered branding and marketing is guaranteed to generate awareness as it makes a convincing statement to those that view it. Generating awareness leads to a stronger fan base as you convert more spectators into hardcore supporters. Those supporters then invest in the program, providing resources for new facilities, equipment upgrades, scholarships, and more. Texas A&M’s twitter account @aggiefblife does a great job of showcasing athletes and coaches and generating brand awareness to the fans. In the HBCU realm, it appears that BCU’s @cateyenetwork has taken the lead in understanding the importance of sports marketing and design when it comes to interacting with those who propel the brand forward.

2. Build Up Your Athletes

Your student-athletes are the stars of the athletic department. They are the ones who sacrifice, train, and perform for months at a time. They suffer the losses and injuries and relish the triumphs. Show them you appreciate their efforts by featuring them in creative works, branding, and other marketing. It may seem corny or shallow, but developing brand ambassadors can have a profound impact on team and fan morale.

Remember that without the student-athletes, the athletics department ceases to exist. Embracing their prowess and incorporating them in program marketing helps to unify the program and positively shape the brand perceptions of those watching. Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, states that “your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” By fostering an environment of excitement along with infrastructural progress (improvements to facilities, equipment, etc.), the stakeholders see a brand worth investing in with their valuable time and money.

Prairie View A&M’s New Panther Stadium

3. Stop Making “Investment” a Bad Word

This final point is actually two sided. It is critical for alumni and outside vested stakeholders to invest in their respective programs to fortify them and make them more financially independent. It is equally important that athletic departments of HBCUs cannot be afraid of investing in (re)branding themselves. While some programs may argue that the athletic department has invested in a new gym or new turf or a new visual identity, if the results have been the same or worse year after year, then it’s time to change strategy. I’m sure we all know that doing the same thing over and over again yet expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

Successful firms see investing as a necessary tactic to grow their business and brand in the future. HBCU athletic programs should see themselves as small businesses, investing in tools that will make their own brands stronger in the years to come, securing the glory that they enjoyed in the past. With several HBCUs and their accompanying athletic programs on the edge of financial collapse or shut down due to external (and sometimes internal) issues, there’s no time like the present to act and address these very issues in a manner that can forge a way forward.

Masekela Mandela is a brand analyst, creative consultant, and sports graphic designer. A proud graduate of Florida A&M University, he is a staunch HBCU advocate and supporter. His writings can be found here on Medium , his daily ramblings on Twitter, and his creative projects on his online portfolio.

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