About Boardroom

Boardroom is a media network that covers the business of sports, entertainment. From the ways that athletes, executives, musicians and creators are moving the business world forward to new technologies, emerging leagues, and industry trends, Boardroom brings you all the news and insights you need to know...

At the forefront of industry change, Boardroom is committed to unique perspectives on and access to the news, trending topics and key players you need to know.

All Rights Reserved. 2022.

Sonja Stills Ushers in a New Era for the MEAC

Sonja Stills, the first woman commissioner of a Division I HBCU conference, has immediately gone to work trying to uplift her league and its people.

When Sonja Stills stepped into office on Jan. 1, 2022, she was riding a wave of good energy.

She had just made history by becoming the first woman commissioner in MEAC history and was the first woman commissioner of a Division I Historically Black College and University conference. 

Before accepting the role, Stills was more than familiar with the league. October marks her 20th year with the MEAC, where she most recently served as the conference’s chief of staff and chief operating officer.

Stills has made an impact from the start of her time with the conference. She’s the one who started the conference’s “We Are MEAC” diversity and inclusion program, which aims to bring together the MEAC’s athletes, alumni, and fans to celebrate the qualities that make people different from one another. Future activations around the slogan could include Mental Health Awareness Month, Pride Month, and Black Business Month.

She also helped start the conference’s esports program. Two years after launch, all eight full-time member institutions have teams. In the spring, they competed in Rocket League, Call of Duty: Cold War, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and Halo Infinite.

“It was something to connect during COVID and it became a conference initiative because the council wanted it to happen and so it evolved to [where] every member has a team,” Stills said. “They have trophies and uniforms just like traditional sports. It is so overwhelming to see where esports has gotten us. Eventually we want to be an HBCU varsity esports conference.”

MEAC Challenges

Sonja Stills took on the commissioner’s role in a time of rejoice for the MEAC. South Carolina State football had just defeated Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders’ Jackson State squad, 31-10, in a major upset in the Celebration Bowl. Entering the game, Jackson State had just one loss. South Carolina State’s season was rockier. After starting 1-4, including two losses to SWAC opponents, the Bulldogs rebounded to finish 7-5.

It was a win for a conference that has seen an abundance of school departures in recent years:

  • Hampton left for the Big South (2018)
  • North Carolina A&T left for the Big South (2020)
  • Florida A&M left for the SWAC (2020)
  • Bethune-Cookman left for the SWAC (2020)

“It was a tremendous win for South Carolina State but it was even bigger for the conference,” she said. “Everybody had written off our conferences after NCAT, Hampton, Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M left. They were saying our conference was not a football powerhouse and evidently, we are and we showed that. We did not have to talk about it, it was about showing what we can do.”

She notes the recent history of the Celebration Bowl, widely considered to be the HBCU national championship game, where conference champions from the MEAC and SWAC face off in the Atlanta Falcons’ Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The game began in 2015 and the MEAC leads the all-time series 5-1.

“When you talk about Deion Sanders, he has brought a spotlight onto HBCUs which is tremendous for our institutions and how we move forward, especially with recruiting top athletes. [But] I wasn’t surprised that South Carolina State won,” she said.

As it stands, with NC Central currently 5-1, the Eagles appear to be the midseason favorite to take home the MEAC championship.

Sign up for our newsletter

Get on our list for weekly sports business, industry trends, interviews, and more.

Conference Expansion

Still, there is a level of uncertainty around adding new schools to the MEAC. With four departures, ideally, the conference would like to expand. But as Stills explains, the process to add a school is not as easy for smaller conferences as it is for the Power 5.

“You don’t want to grab institutions just to be grabbing institutions. We want to make sure that it makes sense,” Stills said. “I’ve seen plenty of social media comments about getting a Division II school but what they fail to understand is that when applying to be a Division I school, the application fee is $1.6 million. You have to be financially ready for that, but then [it is about] if that school is going to be sustainable as a Division I institution.”

Outside of the application fee, there is also the number of sports each school sponsors. In Division I, a school must have a minimum of 14 teams (seven for men and seven for women or six for men and eight for women). On the other hand, in Division II, schools only need 10 teams (five for men and five for women). And so on top of the application fee, adding sports can be expensive between hiring coaches, buying equipment, and allocating scholarships.

“We don’t want to bring an institution in and then they are sustainable as a Division I school,” she added. “We’ve seen Winston-Salem State University and Savannah State University, so we need to be careful about the selection of the institutions and make sure that they truly vetted out what it means to be a Division I school.”

Uplifting Women

Adding schools is on the to-do list, but something else is at the top of Stills’ docket.

“My number one responsibility is to uplift women,” she said. “It is so important that I provide a seat at the table so that they can have a voice.”

Stills recalls one of her interns, Karley Berry, who now works at the NFL as a senior manager of game operations.

“She was a tremendous intern and eventually left to work at the NFL,” she said. “That is what I want to happen. Putting her in the right place for her to network is instrumental to not just her but all women’s success.”

Seven of the ten people on Stills’ staff are women.

“I want to be able to ensure that even though I may be the first female MEAC commissioner, I don’t want to be the last. My greatest joy is being able to bring back women.”

Read More:

Sign up for our newsletter

Get on our list for weekly sports business, industry trends, interviews, and more.

About The Author
Randall Williams
Randall Williams
Randall Williams is a former Staff Writer at Boardroom specializing in sports business and music. He previously worked for Sportico, Andscape and Bloomberg. His byline has also been syndicated in the Boston Globe and Time Magazine. Williams' notable profile features include NFL Executive VP Troy Vincent, Dreamville co-founder Ibrahim Hamad, BMX biker Nigel Sylvester, and both Shedeur and Shilo Sanders. Randall, a graduate of "The Real HU" -- Hampton University — is most proud of scooping Howard University joining Jordan Brand nearly three months before the official announcement.