NAIA On The Move

Hoping to stem the tide of schools leaving its organization, the NAIA is upgrading its efforts in membership services, marketing, and public relations.

By Staff

Athletic Management, 13.4, June/July 2001,

The leaders of the National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) have a lot more than a change of scenery in mind as they plan their upcoming move from Tulsa, Okla., to the Kansas City suburb of Olathe, Kan. Although the move returns the NAIA to an area it called home from 1958-1993, it’s driven more by an eye to the future than a nod to the past.

The decision to leave Tulsa was spurred largely by a desire to build a home for the association’s new Champions of Character program. The NAIA’s rented office space in Tulsa did not provide an opportunity for easy expansion, so the association decided to search for a location to place both its national offices and the Character in Sport Center, which will provide the facilities for sportsmanship and character seminars.

But the Champions of Character program is just one part of the group’s larger mission: to make the NAIA a better organization—and a more attractive group to potential members. The changes include a branding effort, more focus on providing services to member institutions, and better public relations, all of which have been spearheaded by Steve Baker, hired in 1997 as the NAIA’s President and Chief Executive Officer.

“I think people are realizing that this organization counts, is doing the right things, and is much stronger than it was even five years ago,” Baker says. “We’re going to try to be trendsetters and leaders like we have been in the past. We’re going to be a player in intercollegiate athletics.”

The organization unveiled a new logo in January—the first major redesign of the NAIA logo in nearly 50 years—as part of a branding effort to re-emphasize its mission of promoting education and developing students through athletic participation. “Our schools need to be able to tell potential student-athletes and their parents they’re in the NAIA and have those families realize what that stands for,” Baker explains. “You can do that in many ways, and branding is one way to draw some attention.

“It is my hope,” he continues, “that the public realizes that we’re doing something very meaningful.”

In addition, the organization’s regional structure has been expanded to provide more involvement for member schools, and efforts have been made to improve services to members. “I guess you would call it customer service,” Baker says. “The schools are our members, but they’re also our customers. We need to treat them as best we can and meet their needs in a timely manner.

“We’ve tried to re-emphasize communication with the members and the amount of time we spend on issues such as eligibility questions,” Baker continues. “We’ve put more emphasis on our legislative services and tried to do a better job with our championships, as well.”

Another NAIA initiative is the Champions of Character, a program designed to stress the positive role athletics can play in character development. “We think we have resources that can help a lot of other people, especially youth who are playing sports,” Baker says. “Those resources, of course, are our student-athletes and coaches. We feel we need to address what has probably become a crisis in sports, which is the poor sportsmanship and similar problems we’re reading far too much about. Since we have the resources, I think it’s important to reach out to the communities where our schools are and make an impact on young kids as they participate in sports.”

The first step involves formalizing sportsmanship and ethics programs already conducted by many NAIA members, including community outreach events and ethics codes for players, coaches, and administrators. The NAIA program will then work with youth organizations, schools, and community groups off-campus.

The underlying impetus for all these changes is the desire to retain current members and entice new members to join. After seeing its membership decline for much of the 1990s, the NAIA roster has recently leveled off, remaining around 330 schools for the past four years. However, this figure is down from 390 earlier in the decade and an all-time high of 561 schools 30 years ago. By comparison, the NCAA currently counts 1,038 schools among members, including 62 provisional members.

A pair of NCAA membership moratoriums may have helped stem the current flow of schools out of the NAIA, but the second one ends next year. The first was established as the NCAA moved to a federated structure. Faced with an influx of new members after that moratorium was lifted, the NCAA put the current moratoriums in place a year ago. The Division I and Division III moratoriums expire in April 2002, followed by the Division II moratorium in September of the same year.

“Over the next couple of years, we could actually have another decline in membership, but I don’t think it will be a substantial one,” Baker says. “We do have about 25 members who are already dual members.”

One of those dual members was also one of the last schools accepted for provisional NCAA membership before the moratoriums were enacted. Transylvania University is completing its first year as a provisional NCAA Division III member while still maintaining its NAIA affiliation.

Brian Austin, Athletic Director at Transylvania, says that the rationale for the move was mainly based on the school’s philosophy. “We felt the Division III schools were more similar to ours in terms of academic perspective and the whole philosophical issue of whether you want to pay kids to play athletics,” Austin says.

Baker hopes the loss of schools like Transylvania can be offset by an increased recruitment effort. “A few years ago, we started to actively seek new members,” Baker says. “We certainly focused a good deal of attention on Canadian schools and the CIAU (Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union). We now have about seven Canadian members where three years ago we only had one, and I could see that growing a little more.

“I think now that we have our service at a substantially higher level, and this new character initiative is in place,” Baker continues, “we have something that will perhaps be intriguing to a number of our former members. I think we’ll focus some attention on these programs to bring them back into the NAIA and try to find schools that may have some dissatisfaction with their current affiliation.”

Even though his school has elected to move to the NCAA, Austin has been impressed by the changes the NAIA has made in recent years. “It’s not like we’re running away from the NAIA,” he says. “They were very good to us for a number of years, and I think the organization definitely has a very strong role to play for a lot of schools. We just felt like Division III was a better fit for our organization.

“I think the NAIA is being more responsive to the membership,” Austin continues. “For a long time, there was an attitude of, ‘We’ve always done it this way, so let’s just keep doing it that way.’ But I think Steve Baker has done a great job getting people to think outside the box.”

Transylvania, the top seed in the 2001 NAIA Division I men’s basketball tournament, plans to maintain its NAIA affiliation until it achieves full NCAA membership, which would be in 2004, should the process go according to plan. However, schools looking to move from the NAIA to the NCAA in the future may not be able to follow the same path.

A proposal is expected to be made at the upcoming NAIA convention in September that could bar teams accepted as provisional NCAA members from NAIA tournaments. Although the wording has not been finalized, it is expected that schools committed to holding dual memberships (as opposed to those who are provisional NCAA members and plan to eventually leave the NAIA) would continue to be accepted into the NAIA tournaments.

“A number of our members felt jaded by those members who had applied to the NCAA and were into their provisional periods,” Baker says. “A number of these schools were still playing in NAIA championships and, in some cases, winning those championships, then boasting that they were going on to the next level. Not to mention that they were starting to recruit using the NCAA image.

“I think that offended a number of our schools and some said, ‘Enough is enough. You’re either going to be in the NAIA, or, if you’re committed to join the NCAA, good luck—but you’re not going utilize us as you make that transition.’

“[If this rule is enacted,] these schools would be facing a four-year period, at minimum, with no championship opportunities,” he continues. “I think that brings a tough situation for any school. It could be very hard to recruit student-athletes and, in a way, could take some schools off the sports pages.”

As similar organizations with similar goals, the NCAA and the NAIA have a unique relationship. “They are the competition in many different ways,” Baker says. “They’re competition for members. They’re competition for student-athletes. They’re competition for media attention. Sometimes, they’re competition in regards to promoting championships.

“But, that being said, I think we have a very solid relationship with the NCAA,” he continues. “I think we understand, along with the NJCAA and the NFHS, that we’re all in this together. We’re all trying to benefit student-athletes. And because of that, we need to meet and share ideas and creative ways to provide the best possible opportunities and services that we can.”