By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
A decade after it arrived in Norfolk, this year’s Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) Basketball Tourney got underway on March 8 in the Norfolk Scope Arena, climaxing with the men’s and women’s championship games broadcast on March 11.
The tournament winner receives an automatic invitation to represent the MEAC in the 2023 NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament.
Headquartered in Norfolk, Va., the MEAC is made up of eight Historically Black institutions across the Mid-Eastern Atlantic coastline: Coppin State University, Delaware State University, Howard University, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Morgan State University, Norfolk State University, North Carolina Central University, and South Carolina State University.
Each year, the MEAC Basketball tournament gives the organization a chance to showcase the talent of its HBCUs’ basketball male and female basketball teams.
This is the 52nd annual tourney and the 22nd that Sonja O. Stills has experienced.
But it is the second one Stills has overseen as the Conference Commissioner, having ascended to that position early last year, after a long time as the organization’s CFO. She is the Conference’s first woman commissioner.
Commissioner Stills proclaims the state of the MEAC union is strong, despite the unique challenges facing all college sports leagues.
“It is a time to show off the commitment of the Chancellors and Presidents of those eight institutions to our conference,” said Stills. “It is a big commitment that has allowed it to show its strength and our long strategy to provide resources for our student-athletes not only for their experiences in sports but academically. We are also providing resources to insure their personal and emotional well-being.”
Stills said that one of the challenges the MEAC leadership faces is questions about the size of the conference and its sustainability.
“There is this disinformation that the conference should fold because it only has eight schools,” Stills said during a recent pre-conference interview with the GUIDE. “But they do not understand that we are a conference of eight elite schools.”
She asserted, “Just like the Ivy League, we have eight elite schools. Are they asking the Ivy League to fold? No.”
Stills said that the MEAC, which used to have 12 schools, has had to realign recently because schools such as Hampton have left for other conferences.
She said the conference is looking at adding members.
But she said if any school applies, “and there will be,” they must be able to sustain themselves “financially and meet other academic and infrastructural standards.”
She said the fact that the MEAC only has eight schools “makes us stronger, provides more revenue for its current members to share, makes us nimble, and travel and other operational costs are lower.”
Before she became Commissioner, Stills was a respected well-known professional executive in the MEAC operation for the past 20-plus years.
She is the first female Commissioner in the conference’s history, as well as the first female Commissioner of a Division I HBCU conference.
She officially began her tenure as the Commissioner in October 2022.
In January 2021, she was promoted to Chief of Staff/Chief Operating Officer of the MEAC. In that role, she ensured the Commissioner at that time, Dr. Dennis E. Thompson, was carrying out the strategic objectives of the Council of Chief Executive Officers and the Delegate Assembly.
Stills was the lead on all hiring, strategic and long-range planning, re-branding, and marketing.
The conference even adopted the NCAA “Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL)” that allows student-athletes to earn revenue for the three.
The conference budget, the renewal of the MEAC Basketball Tournament with the City of Norfolk, and all special events and activities were part of her portfolio.
“Being Commissioner has been a very humbling experience,” Stills said. “It is very positive to provide opportunities for others to shine and to have a seat at the table … and to be in a place to make things happen for the conference.”
Stills has an undergraduate degree in Human Services Counseling from ODU and a master’s in counseling from Hampton University, bringing an empathic and inclusive leadership style to her role as MEAC leader, she said.
“I am a bit more touchy-feely. I observe before I speak,” she said. “I also let others speak. I think it’s important to be empathetic and understanding as a leader and to balance work and life.
I give (MEAC employees) permission to go home and be sick and take care of yourself and your family.”
Stills also created the MEAC’s Esports program, an initiative that began in the summer of 2020, as the conference and the world were dealing with the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic.
She took charge as the Director of Esports, which is a revenue-generating operation. Her goal has been to enhance awareness of the MEAC’s esports initiative by working with industry business leaders to encourage growth.
Before arriving at the MEAC, Stills served as Hampton University’s Coordinator of Athletic Academic Support for four years, and for three of those years, she was appointed Senior Woman Administrator.
Apart from the actions on the basketball court at Scope, Stills said that there are opportunities for students who are not athletic to shine. One is that four students from each of the campuses participate in a forum exhibiting their leadership skills on various issues.
According to Stills, MEAC football and basketball teams are still the most watched and highest revenue-generating sports for any conference. She said the MEAC sports events have been featured on ESPN and ABC networks such as the Celebration Bowl in early December which features the elite football teams.
Along with the expanded TV and cable exposure, the eight campuses have been able to showcase their respective sports programs and bands, as in the case of NSU’s band during the national 2023 Annual Tournament of Roses Parade.
The conference members can also reveal the quality of their academic programs and facilities.
She said that although the COVID Pandemic period resulted in the MEAC Basketball Tournament operating without the usual fans in the stands, post-pandemic interest, revenue, and benefits for the city continue to resume and improve as things move forward.
This year’s conference evidenced a return of more traditional fans in the stands, supporting the MEAC teams.
Stills said the NBA, the WBNA, and NFL are showing increasing interest in talent being produced by the MEAC programs.
Looking forward, in the coming years, the conference will be developing a platform to assure that more of its member schools are able to provide baseball with adequate facilities.
“Norfolk is our home,” said Stills. “Norfolk is just four hours from all of our schools. We hope this will attribute to the continued post-Pandemic enjoyment and growth of the student-athletes, those students who are not athletes, this city, and our Tournament this week.”