It was hard to visualize just a few months ago how a historically Black Division I athletic conference would lose five teams and not lose its commissioner, but the prophecy of the obvious came to pass yesterday as long-serving Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Commissioner Dennis Thomas announced plans to retire in December.
Some MEAC fans will look at Thomas’ departure as an overdue exit. The departures of North Carolina A&T State University, Hampton University, Florida A&M University, and Bethune-Cookman University had already underscored a growing discontent with the conference and its inability to maximize the reach of its member schools’ brands from Florida to Delaware.
But there were many accomplishments. In 19 years at the helm, Thomas was part of the leadership that brokered two nationally televised annual football games between the MEAC and the Southwestern Athletic Conference, steered as the conference pulled into new harbors of corporate dollars moving towards HBCU programs, and he was in charge as the league pushed into televised competition across cable and digital networks.
He is the longest-tenured commissioner in league history for a reason, and it’s because he successfully achieved his number one objective as a commissioner; don’t let the conference fold. But there are questions about his departure that raise concern.
Why is he leaving halfway through the academic year in between fall football and winter basketball championships? Why now and not after the conference is able to recruit more schools to replace the five it has lost in recent years (the previously mentioned four and Savannah State University, which dropped to Division II last year).
Savannah State may just be the answer to the equation. Forget the big four who independently improved their sports stock and sought better outcomes for their investment in athletics; consider the rest of the neer-do-well league members who struggle to compete in the revenue-bearing sports year-to-year, and the options they have in returning to Division II.
There is a soft place some to fall in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which in many ways has been behaving like a Division I rival of the SWAC and MEAC for the better part of nearly a decade. This league boasts some of the “first and only” HBCU conference accolades that we typically would associate with the two historically Black FCS conferences.
Relationships with both the NFL and NBA Players Association have boosted professional outcomes for current and former players in Division II. It claims many of the same broadcast opportunities as the MEAC and is lightyears ahead on digital streaming rights and social media rankings among all HBCU leagues both inside and outside of NCAA membership.
The MEAC was the first to have a woman officiate a college football game, but the SIAC was the first to have an entire crew comprised of women. And many of the SIAC’s corporate sponsorships are on par or ahead of those in the MEAC in money value or length of term.
Rebuilding the MEAC’s membership and holding institutions like Howard University, Delaware State University and North Carolina Central University back from other DI destinations will be the top order for the new commissioner. But considering that the same number of schools the MEAC has lost has been about the same number the SIAC has gained over a similar period should give an easy sense of the blueprint the conference should follow and who should be in charge of designing it.