MILWAUKEE — As November blew into December, the men’s basketball team from Jackson State University arrived to face Marquette in its seventh consecutive road game, played in the sixth different state. The Tigers had been away from their Mississippi campus for 17 of the 23 days since the season began. And the traveling was far from over.
By chance, the Tigers met the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the team hotel, where he jokingly admonished them to play defense and said “don’t let your legs start shaking like you never played basketball before.”
It does not seem much of an exaggeration to say that Jackson was one of the few familiar faces the Tigers encountered over the first two months of the season. Jackson State travels on meager finances without so much as cheerleaders. Only a sprinkling of relatives, friends and alumni rooted on the Tigers against Marquette. As usual, the loudest clapping came from the players themselves.
“It’s always 15 of us against 15,000 of everybody else,” said Darrian Wilson, 23, a graduate student guard.
It is all but impossible for Jackson State and other historically Black colleges and universities in the Southwestern Athletic Conference to draw home games against basketball powers like Duke and Gonzaga and U.C.L.A., who have little to gain competitively or financially on the road against lesser opponents. A partnership between the SWAC and the Pac-12 Conference, beginning next season, will help to alleviate that disparity, at least temporarily. In the meantime, the SWAC has turned the sport’s usual funding mechanism on its head.
Most schools reinforce their budgets at home with ticket sales, corporate sponsorships and concessions sales. Jackson State and the other teams in its conference seek supplemental financing on the road, traveling for most or all of their nonconference games for guaranteed paydays to help bolster some of the smallest athletic budgets in Division I of the N.C.A.A.
In effect, their higher-profile opponents seek to rent victories, while SWAC teams ease the pain of regular defeats with payouts that range from $60,000 to more than $100,000 per game.
Marquette offered Jackson State more than a snippet of polka music, a chance to play against a perennial N.C.A.A. tournament team, a national television audience and a court it shares with the N.B.A. champion Milwaukee Bucks. It also kicked in about $150,000, which included funds to pay for the Tigers’ flight and lodging expenses, according to Jackson State’s coach, Wayne Brent, and Marquette officials.
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