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HBCUs are enjoying a resurgence of attention for their football programs

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Of all the college football games on tap tomorrow, one matchup will be historic. For the first time, Louisiana State is taking on Southern University, an HBCU. It's part of a growing trend that's putting a larger spotlight on football teams from historically Black colleges and universities. Cody Short of member station WBHM has the story.

CODY SHORT, BYLINE: At the Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic in Ohio a few days ago, it was festive.

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SHORT: Winston-Salem State was taking on Central State. LaToya Turner graduated from Central State in 2009 and traveled four hours for the game.

LATOYA TURNER: HBCUs been around since the 1800s, and they are not just something that's, like, popping right now, but they've been popping. It's just now getting exposure.

SHORT: That exposure has blossomed in the past few years. Football at HBCUs has always been a cultural cornerstone. Since the legendary former NFL cornerback Deion Sanders took over as head coach at Mississippi's Jackson State University in 2020, he ushered in a new wave of recognition for HBCU football.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Welcome back into the Sheraton Birmingham for the 2022 SWAC Media Day presented by Pepsi...

SHORT: The Southwestern Athletic Conference, or SWAC, had their media day in July. A dozen HBCUs brought their head coaches and top athletes to discuss the upcoming season. Travis Hunter was a star of the show.

TRAVIS HUNTER: Not enough of our Black brothers goes to HBCU. They all think they just have to go to a PWI to get the exposure they need, so I wanted them to know that they are accepted in an HBCU too.

SHORT: Hunter shocked sports fans when he decided to attend Jackson State University rather than go to a PWI, or predominantly white institution. It is very rare for an HBCU to land a top athlete, and Hunter was the No. 1 overall high school recruit who had already committed to Florida State University. "Sports Illustrated" called the move, probably the most shocking decision in the history of college football recruiting. HBCUs usually don't offer the same resources. But Deion Sanders is shaking that up.

DEION SANDERS: I love where we are with our program, and I'm trying to inflame other programs as well, simultaneously. So when I'm up on the stage talking, I'm not just talking for Jackson State, I'm talking for the whole HBCU and the whole SWAC and whole Black college football in general.

SHORT: Sanders is capitalizing on his notoriety to change the game. He wants HBCUs to focus on generating more money for their schools, and that's something Abrian Scott agrees with. Scott runs the YouTube channel OFF SCRIPT TV, and he's dedicated to HBCU sports, but he wants to see more benefits for the schools themselves.

ABRION SCOTT: As Black people, what you see is that we are the culture, but we never capitalize on our own culture.

SHORT: Recently, SWAC signed a media deal rumored to be $120 million over 10 years. This would bring in more money and broadcast more games to more households than ever before. But it's tiny compared to the Big Ten Conference's new seven-year agreement worth billions.

SCOTT: It's bad business, and you're not setting up yourself with media contracts that recoup some of these schools' monies that they put out for the games.

SHORT: Perhaps the biggest change could come as more highly ranked universities play SWAC schools in the future. It's something Louisiana State University is willing to do. This weekend will be the first time the Tigers play an HBCU in school history, but it won't be the last. LSU will take on Grambling State University next year. For NPR News, I'm Cody Short.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cody Short