Black Sports Business Symposium finds a home in Atlanta

Jackson State coach Deion Sanders instructs his son and Jackson State's quarterback Shedeur Sanders (2) during the first half of the 2021 Cricket Celebration Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, December 18, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Combined ShapeCaption
Jackson State coach Deion Sanders instructs his son and Jackson State's quarterback Shedeur Sanders (2) during the first half of the 2021 Cricket Celebration Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, December 18, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Amid a pandemic in 2020, the idea for the Black Sports Business Symposium was born.

At a time when people were isolated but still holding meaningful conversations, the symposium’s co-founders, Gregory Gibson, Steve Wyche and Kevin Demoff, alongside Brian Lockhart, talked about a need to help students and professionals find abundant opportunities within an industry that historically has lacked diversity.

Across all leagues, Black people often are overlooked in the sports industry, especially for prominent positions, despite making up the player majority in the NFL, NBA and WNBA.

Although the NFL’s Rooney Rule requires all teams to interview at least two people of color/women when hiring for top positions, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, only 11.4% of Black people work in management positions in the NFL’s league office.

Understanding and knowing the challenges that face Black people looking to be a part of sports business leadership, those four men took a chance to build something new and helpful.

“Let’s just stop asking where is the talent, and let’s go make the place for the talent to exist,” Lockhart said. “And I think that that has always been the ambition, to not just be another date on the calendar for somebody to attend an event. It is actually to shift perspective on how valuable our talent is and to present a place where we exist and can be seen and can be sought after.”

The symposium was created to emphasize the acquisition of Black talent, the development of students seeking careers and encouraging networking among each other. When looking around for potential hosting cities, they knew the inaugural symposium needed to be held in a city known for its culture.

“To do it right, it had to be in Atlanta,” Gibson said. “It had to be in the place that many consider the mecca for Black professionals, right? For Black people. And if we were going to roll this out, we were going to do it the right way.”

As a booming sports town with four HBCUs in the city, Atlanta was the first to come to mind when deciding where to host the inaugural symposium, especially after Falcons and Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank offered his stadium as the venue.

“I mean, Arthur Blank and the Falcons offered up their stadium,” Wyche said. “They could have had a Taylor Swift concert here, they could have had a significant revenue generator in this stadium; but for three days, they allowed us to use this beautiful facility for a purposeful event. And that is to help keep young people of color in a pipeline to get jobs or to enhance the opportunities that they have right now. That was a huge deal-sealer for this to happen.”

After two years of planning and marketing, this weekend, the symposium moved from a dream to a reality when organizers welcomed thousands from across the United States to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The three-day symposium that began Thursday hosted opportunities for attendees to speak to representatives from companies looking for Black talent. Students and professionals also were encouraged to participate in many learning sessions with well-known speakers and members of business community who led discussions surrounding race and equity in the sports business.

Along with speakers from other parts of the nation, Atlanta was represented well on the stage as Dream broadcaster LaChina Robinson, Dream part-owner and Vice President Renee Montgomery, Falcons CEO Rich McKay, nine-time NBA All-Star Dominique Wilkins and Morehouse President David Thomas all took part in speaking and teaching.

Perhaps the most known and anticipated speaker of the symposium was Day 1 headliner, Deion Sanders, Jackson State’s football coach.

Enjoying his homecoming in Atlanta, where he played with the Falcons from 1989-93 and the Braves from 1991-94, Sanders closed the first day with an hour-long message about his playing and coaching careers.

Sanders began his conversation, moderated by Wyche, by addressing his appreciation for the city of Atlanta, explaining that the Black culture here drew him to want to become a Falcon early in his football career. Closing his time with a Q&A, he discussed his role at Jackson State and his experiences at his HBCU.

Grateful for its first stop in Atlanta, the wait was worth it as the Black Sports Business Symposium looks to continue to bring light to spreading the importance of diversifying the sports industry.

“I don’t care if it was five or five million (in attendance),” Gibson said. “Success isn’t determined by the number of people that show. It’s determined by the impact that’s delivered, and just based off of the responses that we’re receiving, the two years of planning have been more than worth it.”