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The NCAA tournament is arguably the biggest event in all of college athletics.
The craziness of this tournament on both the men’s and women’s sides has led to heartbreak, joy and unforgettable moments for everyone involved. It also brings a sizable payday for many conferences. Some more than others.
HBCU conferences like the SWAC and the MEAC find themselves on the lower end of the spectrum. According to USA Today, from 1997 through 2018, the Big Ten Conference has been paid the most at $340.4 million, while the SWAC got only $25 million which is nearly the minimum amount that a conference can receive during that time.
The reasoning for this can get very complicated for people who are unfamiliar with the intricacies of the tournament. But to make things plain and simple, the more games the teams in your athletic conference win the more money the conference receives.
Teams get paid for making the tournament and for winning games while they are there. These payments are called units. The 2021 units were valued at $337,141 according to the NCAA. Usually, that number increases about 3% annually. The value of the units in 2022 will be applied to units earned by conferences over the previous six tournaments. So basically every time a team in the SWAC or MEAC has made the tournament or won a tournament game in the last six years the conference will get paid the unit value that’s designated for the current year.
The MEAC and SWAC will always get at least one team each into the tournament under the current format. Every single division one conference is granted one automatic qualifier to the tournament. So these conferences are guaranteed at least one unit payment every year.
However, they rarely are allowed to gain more because of how the seeding works in the tournaments. The 68 teams that make the tournament are all ranked based on a variety of factors such as record, strength of schedule and NET to determine seedings. NET is a more analytical breakdown of how good a team is which takes into account things such as efficiency and margin of victory. All of these considerations include personal biases about which conferences the NCAA selection committee thinks are better and impact seeding.
The higher your seed, the harder the teams you have to face.
As you can imagine, HBCUs usually get ranked toward the bottom, which means they typically have the highest seeds possible. This leads to an HBCU having to face one of the best teams in college basketball super early in the tournament which typically thwarts their chances of picking up wins and unit payments. While stats and numbers play a role in their seedings, there is speculation that antiquated notions about the brand of basketball HBCU conferences play also contribute to their perception in the eyes of the committee, all of which impacts their seedings.
Let’s look at this year.
Texas Southern will represent the men in the SWAC as a 16 seed. But they will have to compete on Tuesday in a “First Four” play-in game versus Texas A&M Corpus Christi for a chance to play top-seeded Kansas. Jackson State’s women’s hoops team is one of the hottest in the country. They’ve won 21 games in a row and will be the SWAC representative in the women’s tourney. They received a 14 seed and will have to play 3 seed LSU on Saturday.
For the MEAC, Norfolk State’s men are a 16 seed and will play one-seeded Baylor in their first game on Thursday. Howard’s women are also a 16 seed and will have to win a “First Four” play-in game versus Incarnate Word on Wednesday for a chance to take on 1 seed South Carolina.
While the 2011 addition of the play-in game expanded the tournament field to 68 teams and gave HBCUs higher chances to win and earn units against lesser competition, the HBCUs playing in those games are usually still ranked as 16 seeds.
To be fair, this isn’t an argument to give HBCUs top seeds in the tournament. But it is interesting to ask honest questions about how HBCU biases could factor into seeding and thus impact these conferences’ earning potential.
How does a team like Jackson State’s women’s squad that averages nearly 80 points a game and is undefeated in their conference with a nearly 20-point average scoring margin not be in the conversation for a higher seed?
Are there still outdated perceptions about what the SWAC and MEAC offer to college basketball?
These are the kinds of questions we need to ask to make sure our historically Black colleges and universities get the treatment they deserve in the NCAA tournament.