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Seven questions with SWAC commissioner Charles McClelland

McClelland speaks candidly about realignment, expansion and the future of the conference

Southwestern Athletic Conference commissioner Charles McClelland couldn’t wait to address rumors and questions about the future of the conference amid talks of realignment and expansion.

He heard the one about the SWAC and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) joining forces to create a “superconference” composed of all the Division I historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

“The SWAC is already a superconference,” McClelland told reporters during 2022 SWAC football media day. “We have every major Division I school from Texas to Florida.”

Since McClelland took over as SWAC commissioner in 2018, the conference has increased its membership to 12 schools, the largest in its history. Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman left the MEAC to join the SWAC in 2021.

McClelland spoke with Andscape about college football realignment, conference expansion and more.

What are your thoughts on conference realignment and what is the SWAC’s stance on realignment?

When you look at the conference realignment, it’s about schools aligning themselves with conferences that are going to be able to help them grow their brands and to put money back into the institutional budgets to ultimately get students, not just student-athletes but students, at their institution. We’re no different. Right?

We added Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M. When we took a look at those two institutions, they fit with our academic profile, they fit with our athletic profile, and we brought them in. We’re not going to expand just for the sake of expanding, the same way [the] Southeastern Conference and the Big Ten are not going to expand just for the sake of experiment. It has to be the right institution that is going to be able to help our conference grow and expand. We’re going to keep ourselves in a position to be on the proactive side, not the reactive side, on all of this conference expansion.

Have any schools reached out? Or does the conference have schools in mind for a possible expansion?

We definitely have had schools reach out. Yes, but it is not within our immediate plans to expand again if there isn’t a school that fits our academic profile and our competitive profile. We’ll take a strong look at [it], though. We’re not saying never. We’re not actively seeking expansion.

“We’re going to keep ourselves in a position to be on the proactive side, not the reactive side, on all of this conference expansion.”

— SWAC commissioner Charles McClelland

We did not actively seek to expand when FAMU and Bethune came, the opportunity kind of met. We embrace it, they embrace it, but we didn’t go out and solicit [them]. In the same way, we’re not going to go out and solicit others, but we will listen. If it works, if it fits, then we will take a listen.

With many HBCU schools transferring conferences, how have you been able to keep the SWAC member schools together?

I don’t know if it was intentional. It’s kind of like bobbing and weaving in boxing. Just bob when somebody throws and try to weave when somebody else throws. But I don’t think this is just a MEAC problem or any other conference, all of us have to face some of these issues. From a commissioner’s standpoint, it was my responsibility to make our schools happy. We’ve had other conferences to reach out to our schools. Our schools have had options. They’ve chosen to stay, and I think their choice to stay is because of the packaging that we’re putting together, the revenue, the distribution, the media, the growth.

What we’re trying to say to our schools and anybody else that is looking at the Southwestern Athletic Conference is that you can go here, and we can be successful. We can check off every box, so you don’t have to leave. And if the SWAC continues to grow in the manner in which we are projected to grow, then we’re going to start knocking heads with some of those FBS conferences because we can generate that revenue. We’ve seen it.

How has the SWAC looked to increase conference revenue through sponsors and partnerships?

We’ve had companies go out and do valuations on what our media rights are worth and what our corporate partnership programs are worth, so we’re not going in blind. We know what our worth is. We know what our value is, and we’re going to go out and we’re going to ask for people to treat us and give us based upon our value. We’re not going to take any second seats to anybody. So I don’t know if there’s any magical thing that the SWAC has done. I do know that we have large fan bases. I do know that they are rabid fan bases and that gives us a leg up on some other conferences.

With the added media attention and the completion of valuations on what the media rights of the SWAC are worth, how will the SWAC continue its growth?

That’s something that we have to continue to figure out. But again, setting a strong foundation is going to be key. Again, that goes back to the corporate partners that you have. … They worked with us every step of the way and when you have companies such as these that are behind the Southwestern Athletic Conference, we can’t fail. When you look at our other corporate partners, we’ve been intentional about it. We have some significant brands: ESPN, General Motors, Pepsi, Cricket Wireless USA, Nike. Those are not brands that just partner with anybody. So, it shows the growth that we’ve had to add those. But it also shows us stability. It shows that we are a safe entity to put your time, money, energy and name behind. What we have to do is continue to be that entity. So those corporate partners, so those media partners can continue to pour those resources in, to show growth. I don’t think college football is going to go anywhere. You can see the numbers that have been thrown out. What we have to do is remain relevant and because of our large fan bases, we’ve been relevant for 101 years.

In the future, could you see both the MEAC and SWAC joining together to create a superconference?

As far as a superconference is concerned, the SWAC is not interested in having our teams go from the Gulf Coast to the East Coast to the North Coast to the West Coast and the South Coast. It doesn’t make sense economically and it doesn’t make sense as far as a conference is concerned. If you ask me, there’s already a superconference. It’s called the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

Nobody is asking the SEC to merge every school. So why would someone ask for the SWAC to merge and the MEAC to merge every school in one HBCU conference? That model has been tried and it has failed. It is not within our organizational structure to have every HBCU as a part of the SWAC. We’re going to fail. There’s not a financial stability model that will allow a school from Texas to go to a school in Delaware and play in any sport on a consistent basis. We have to do what is required to make sure that the SWAC stays strong and stays vital.

How important is it that the MEAC thrive and that there are two Division I HBCU conferences?

You have to have diversity in the marketplace in order for your market to thrive. And if you only have one product, that product can get boring. I’ve said it time and time again. It’s been proven that [the singular conference] model does not work.

[MEAC commissioner] Sonja Stills has done an outstanding job with the MEAC. The MEAC is desperately needed in this landscape. I don’t think one Black college conference in Division I is the right way to go. I think Sonja Stills has the skill, the temperament and the wherewithal to make sure that the MEAC stands on firm ground. So, I am 100% convinced that the MEAC will be here.

Mia Berry is the senior HBCU writer for Andscape and covers everything from sports to student-led protests. She is a Detroit native (What up Doe!), long-suffering Detroit sports fan and Notre Dame alumna who randomly shouts, "Go Irish."