How HBCU Gameday creates an immersive digital experience

Operations Manager Wali Pitt, Founder and News Director Steven Gaither and General Manager Tolly Carr.

By Preston Fore

Sports culture at historically Black colleges and universities is big — from the marching bands and screaming fans to the long historic rivalries, but it has often gone under covered in legacy media. Enter HBCU Gameday, a multimedia storytelling platform.

By utilizing a combination of videos, podcasts, social media, and even a Roku channel, HBCU Gameday has been able to recreate that immersive gameday experience in the digital world.

And, as part of UNC-Knight Foundation’s Table Stakes, HBCU Gameday’s three partners have taken the company from a side-hustle to a modern media company with growing revenue.

It’s a site that punches above its weight. General Manager Tolly Carr, who joined two years after the site’s 2012 launch, assumed the company had a large staff — based on the amount of social media content. However, the start-up was a staff of one: Steven Gaither, the company’s founder and now news director.

Carr works alongside Gaither and the third member in the trio, Operations Manager Wali Pitt, and a growing number of contributors to serve what Carr describes as a niche — but growing — audience. For example, Carr said, North Carolina A&T University recently joined the Big South Conference, which will expand their coverage and reach new audiences — including fans of non-HBCU schools.

Carr credited the company’s participation in the fourth cohort of UNC-Knight Foundation’s Table Stakes, an education program for local news organizations that provides them with tools to grow, in helping them identify challenges on the horizon. When running a business, he said, there’s so many things that you don’t know you don’t know about.

HBCU Gameday’s ability to work with other cohort members allowed them to realize that no matter how big or small a publication, companies are facing the same problems.

The team’s Table Stakes coach, Tim Griggs, said he is impressed by the team’s entrepreneurial spirit.

“They understand the hustle required to take the organization from a project to a real thing, and they’ve shown the stamina to keep pushing the revenue pedal even though they all have other, largely content-focused, jobs,” said Griggs, the founder and CEO of Blue Engine Collaborative. “Plus, they’re just awesome people who are incredibly fun to be around.”

Over the past several years, the company’s revenue has been an inconsistent trickle, which made it hard to plan for future growth. To change that, HBCU Gameday recently partnered with a digital ad sales company that has helped create consistent, growing revenue.

“Now they’re generating serious cash that’s allowing them to invest in growth,” Griggs said. “And that’s largely, in my view, because of great focus. They had some early wins and built momentum — and confidence that they could keep doing it.”

As its audience grows, Carr said the quality of its storytelling is the factor that will keep new visitors engaged and coming back. Success can also be attributed to the authenticity brought by the three leaders, all of whom attended HBCUs.

“We have a very good sense of what resonates with our audience and the issues that they care about,” Carr said. “Some places are tone-deaf to things, but we have a full understanding — almost like it’s just in your DNA at this point, having been a student at an HBCU and heavily involved in the culture from the time I was 17 years old.”

For HBCU Gameday, the workflow changes caused by the pandemic only further solidified their brand as a digital platform focused on sports at historically Black colleges and universities.

“Ironically, as a small business with people who are already working virtually, the workflow of the pandemic only helped us,” Carr said. “Products that serve various industries came out with tools and resources and infrastructure to support virtual workflow.”

Even in the height of the pandemic last fall — when many sports were canceled — HBCU Gameday was able to develop content. They created a 17-episode television show about football, all based on history and commentary.

HBCU Gameday’s vast content library enabled them to develop and grow — even during adversity.

“I want our platform to be everywhere,” Carr said. “I want us to be so widespread that it is just synonymous with that experience of any interest in HBCUs or sports.”