Five years ago, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference was struggling. It was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, its members' football schedules were stocked with third-rate opponents, and corporate sponsorship and television exposure were virtually nonexistent. This football season, including the first round of the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs yesterday, a conference game was beamed nearly every Saturday to 33 of the nation's 100 top television markets, covering more than 20 million households. Beginning in January, at least one conference basketball game per week will be on TV, including the MEAC men's and women's tournament semifinals and finals.

Ten corporate sponsors are on board. Non-Division I football opponents largely have disappeared, and not only is the conference champion automatically included in the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs, MEAC teams have begun getting at-large bids. Yesterday, for the first time in conference history, both of its playoff teams won their first-round games--on the road, no less. North Carolina A&T upset top-seeded and previously undefeated Tennessee State, 24-10, and Florida A&M defeated No. 4 seed Appalachian State, 44-29.

In addition, the conference for the first time is earning a profit, with enough money to reimburse each school its $35,000 in annual dues plus a little extra, according to conference officials.

The MEAC--comprising 11 historically black colleges and universities from Delaware State in Dover to Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla., and including Howard University here--remains in a different financial world from major conferences such as the Atlantic Coast Conference. It also doesn't have the broader competitive profile of a mid-major conference such as the Southern Conference, another Division I-AA league that regularly produces multiple I-AA football playoff teams and occasionally sees a men's basketball team win a game in the NCAA tournament.

But the MEAC is trying to use its long-untapped access to well-educated, financially successful blacks on the East Coast as its entry point to the time-honored cycle of collegiate athletic success. How do schools win? By attracting the best athletes possible. And what's a major selling point to prospective recruits? Television exposure. And how do schools get on television? Primarily by winning, but sometimes there are other methods.

Unnoticed, but Valuable Stock

Enter Charles S. Harris, who became MEAC commissioner in 1996 after 23 years in some of the nation's biggest and broadest college athletic departments. From 1985 to 1995, he was athletic director at Arizona State, where he began a five-year stint on one of the NCAA's most important panels--the Division I men's basketball committee, the group that oversees the tournament, including the selection and seeding of teams. Before that, Harris worked for seven years as the University of Pennsylvania's athletic director and for six years as an assistant athletic director at Michigan, whose athletic director at the time--Don Canham--practically invented modern college athletic marketing.

Former North Carolina A&T chancellor Edward B. Fort saw Harris sitting a few rows in front of him at an NCAA basketball tournament game in 1996 and asked him if he would be interested in applying for the MEAC job.

"I was impressed with his acute and obvious knowledge of sports administration in basketball, football and other sports," Fort said. Fort also had seen how Harris handled himself in the media spotlight at Arizona State, where Harris also gained renown as the first black athletic director of a Division I-A school. In addition, Fort wanted a commissioner with the type of national television and marketing contacts Harris had, especially from his membership on the basketball committee.

When Harris took the $110,000-plus-per-year job in August 1996, he looked at the member schools like a Wall Street analyst who had found a relatively unnoticed, but potentially valuable, stock. MEAC football teams already were playing, often before big crowds, in neutral-site games hundreds, or even thousands, of miles from home: the Circle City Classic in Indianapolis, the Gateway Classic in St. Louis, the New York Urban League Classic at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

But, said Harris: "This was an undervalued asset by virtually any measure: by the coverage of our geographic footprint, by a group of black universities, a group of major college football teams."

Or, as Southern Conference Commissioner Alfred White, who is black, put it: "Historically, black college athletics doesn't have mass appeal, but it does have appeal to African Americans around the United States, and they control a lot of the buying power in this country."

Harris began harnessing that power with a strategic management and marketing plan he first applied to the MEAC office and the conference's football programs. Harris immediately increased every school's annual dues from $15,000 per year to approximately $70,000 per year for the first year to erase a deficit that had reached several hundred thousand dollars. (The conference dues have since dropped to $35,000 per year.)

He also hired a new supervisor of football officials to bring consistency and accountability to the officiating. A person was hired to administer compliance with NCAA rules. The conference office gained the equivalent of 1 1/2 positions.

One of his first marketing-related calls went to Coca-Cola Co., which agreed to an expanded relationship with the MEAC that included promotion of the conference basketball tournament through area stores. The next call was to Nike, where Harris had friends in high places. That produced a deal that includes free football shoes and women's basketball shoes for each school as well as steeply discounted apparel, according to several MEAC coaches and athletic directors. That alone saves schools several thousand dollars per year on their athletic budgets.

Meantime, he went to work on the conference's competitive profile in football, knowing that a better competition level would bring Division I-AA playoff appearances, which would bring credibility, which would bring increased television exposure and sponsorship--elements that often go hand in hand.

Harris convinced member schools to upgrade their schedule with teams such as William & Mary, the Citadel, Towson, Charleston Southern, Bucknell and Elon. This season, only four MEAC schools had any non-Division I teams on their football schedules. And beginning next season, any MEAC school that schedules more than one non-Division I football opponent in a season will be fined.

"We wanted to send a signal that we are institutions that can compete academically and athletically with other folks in our region," Harris said.

Helped by Hampton, which became eligible for the MEAC championship in 1996, progress has been swift on the playing field and off: In 1997, the conference sent two teams to the Division I-AA football playoffs for the first time, then did it again in 1998, when Florida A&M gave the conference its first playoff victory since 1982.

In addition, Harris convinced NBC last year to begin a national Christmas Day broadcast of the Heritage Bowl, a game that is sponsored by McDonald's and played at Atlanta's Georgia Dome between one team from the MEAC and one from the Southwestern Athletic Conference, the nation's other Division I-AA conference of historically black colleges and universities. (The Heritage Bowl had been broadcast by ESPN.)

Meanwhile, the roster of MEAC sponsors has grown to 10, including Bank of America, Xerox Corp., National Car Rental System Inc., US Airways Group Inc., Wittnauer, a Ford dealership, the U.S. Marines and the U.S. Postal Service. Revenues from sponsorship have increased sevenfold under Harris.

"The national audience, as well as sponsors, are recognizing the power on and off the field of the MEAC," said William Stone, president of Herndon-based Fosstone Productions, which produces the MEAC's telecasts.

Becoming a MEAC sponsor "allowed us to reach the black middle class in televised broadcasts of black college sports that we thought would make a difference in their perception of the Postal Service," said Brett Savage, manager of special team markets for the Postal Service, whose deal includes announcement of the "U.S. Postal Starting Lineups" in every week's telecast.

Armed with major sponsors willing to pay for commercials, Harris, who also is seeking to make the MEAC appealing beyond the black community, discontinued the occasional MEAC broadcasts on Black Entertainment Television in favor of Home Team Sports, the Sunshine Network in Florida and AmericaOne, a collection of 50 independent stations around the country.

Last year, five MEAC football games were televised; this year the number was eight.

Overall enrollment at MEAC schools has increased with greater television exposure. Three MEAC schools have a record enrollment this year, according to Harris: Delaware State, Norfolk State and North Carolina A&T.

"The exposure nationally can't but help us," said William A.T. Byrd, assistant vice president of enrollment at Bethune-Cookman, where the number of states represented in the student body has increased from 28 to around 40.

And back in the conference office, the quest for national exposure and credibility continues. It has made a deal with Electronic Arts Sports that puts MEAC school names on video games. Harris has instilled an air of professionalism in the conference, including the establishment of a World Wide Web page. Phone calls are returned within a day, game statistics have been computerized, binders are distributed before league meetings, a four-page color brochure is distributed to prospective sponsors and the conference holds seminars on how to get more media coverage.

"The sponsorships and relationships he has cultivated with sponsors has given us more stability," Howard University Athletic Director Hank Ford. "The conference as a whole has a lot more credibility now. It's a much more professional example throughout."

A Price for Up and Coming

All of this has not been without cost. The conference administration budget has gone from less than $1 million annually to more than $2 million, according to people familiar with those numbers.

Better competition, improved facilities and more ambitious player recruitment also have required some schools to increase their athletic budgets. Florida A&M's athletic budget, for example, has gone from $4 million in 1996 to around $6 million, according to Athletic Director Ken Riley. The football recruiting budget has doubled from around $25,000 in 1993 to $50,000, in part to reach players in places such as Los Angeles and Detroit.

"To achieve the goals that we generally want to achieve, it takes a certain kind of investment," Harris said. "If the schools only recruit in the East, you've limited your ability to be successful. But if you can get the second-best player by going to Sacramento, and maybe you get 10 of them, your roster is that much better."

There's still a ways to go, though. The conference does not have an overall licensing agreement for its apparel. There also is the question of whether the MEAC can improve itself in men's basketball--college athletics' other major revenue-producing sport--as dramatically as it has in football. Although the MEAC receives an automatic NCAA tournament bid, its representatives are a combined 1-18 in the tournament, with Coppin State's upset of second-seeded South Carolina in 1997 the only victory.

In addition, while the league finally earns a profit from the Heritage Bowl, its basketball tournament has yet to take off. The basketball tournament generated a "low six-figure" profit for the conference in Richmond last year after languishing in Tallahassee, Fla., for several years, but overall attendance for five sessions of men's and women's doubleheaders was just 28,000.

Harris would like to develop an event that even approaches the stature of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament, which earns more than $1 million for the historically black Division II conference based in Hampton, Va.

"I'm the guy Charles wants to be like," CIAA Commissioner Leon G. Kerry said. "I have the tournament he wants. I'm glad MEAC's up and coming. Do I want him to catch me? Hell, no."

MEAC Attack

The Mideastern Athletic Conference has recently gained stature in the eyes of corporate sponsors who see a large market among students and alumni along the East coast.

Morgan State University

Baltimore

Enrollment: 6,100

Coppin State University

Baltimore

Enrollment: 2,500

North Carolina A&T

State University

Greensboro, N.C.

Enrollment: 8,000

South Carolina

State University

Orangeburg, S.C.

Enrollment: 4,700

Florida A&M

University

Tallahassee, Fla.

Enrollment: 11,000

Hampton University

Hampton, Va.

Enrollment: 5,800

Bethune-Cookman College

Daytona Beach, Fla.

Enrollment: 3,300

Delaware State University

Dover, Del.

Enrollment: 3,600

Maryland Eastern Shore

Princess Anne, Md.

Enrollment: 3,900

Howard University

Washington, D.C.

Enrollment: 12,000

Norfolk State University

Norfolk, Va.

Enrollment: 8,300