Despite membership loses, there is much more behind an organization as big as the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).

So positives aplenty are found as it moves into the tail end of this decade with hopes of building back up membership in the face of the constant threat of the NCAA pulling them away.

“The one thing that we are trying to get our schools to understand is, what we call, the business of small college athletics,” said Jim Carr, chief executive officer. “Most of our schools see athletics in the traditional sense of esprit de corps – it helps the campus rally around something and its fun for students – but what the schools understand also is that this is a way to get kids on campus.

“We’re trying to help our presidents and ADs understand that we are trying to help coaches win games and bring students on the campus. It’s one thing to bring in 400 athletes, but from a business perspective, is this helping the school if they are all on a full scholarship? A school like Tabor isn’t going to survive very long, because it doesn’t have the resources and dollars to do that.”

That’s where the eligibility center helps determine what high school students see NAIA schools as a fit. There is also the INCRED: Credential Evaluation Service – which helps international students shop for what works for them – 7 to 8 percent of NAIA’s athletes come from abroad.

The key is finding those who can attend an NAIA school because it fits athletically and academically, but financially as well.

“It’s definitely a challenge in higher education at small, private, liberal arts colleges that rely on tuition year after year,” Carr said. “They get small endowments and they are not getting the state funding that state schools are getting, so they are looking very closely at Pell Grants. Lots of states have dollars kids can take and go to private schools … our schools are looking at ways to make ends meet.”

It all works for schools like the University of Saint Mary in Leavenworth.

“I like the mission for NAIA athletics, I like the Champions of Character formation serving as a vital piece to NAIA practice,” University of Saint Mary Athletic Director Rob Miller said. “I think that many small colleges face the same concerns (especially church-based, private schools. The NAIA ensures that these types of schools have a common goal with athletics serving as a tool for student development.”

University of Saint Mary women’s basketball coach Bruce Erickson is concerned with the rapid development of more teams on campuses that may not be able to afford them.

“Everybody is trying to increase their sports to try and up their enrollment and can make the budget,” Erickson said. “Where are you going to find enough lacrosse players? Or women’s wrestling? I think the NAIA is listening to what the schools are telling them. They are wanting more kids in school and more student-athletes. I think the NAIA is going to listen to what the schools want.

“I don’t think they’ll ever slow down. They’ll keep adding sports. No matter what the sport it is, if there is enough interest, they’ll try to monitor it and work with it. … I think the schools are running the show.”

Short-term goals

As the status quo stays strong, the NAIA now knows it’s time to keep building.

“How we build a stronger membership and how to differentiate our championships from NCAA Division II and III,” Carr said. “Even though we’d like to see more people come out to our NAIA Division I men’s championship for example, compared to (NCAA) Division II or III are getting and the atmosphere and how we take care of the athletes does set us apart.

“We are also doing an assessment of our rules to figure out ways to be even more student friendly to bend over backward to help the student athlete. It’s a tough balance because if you skew too far over to help you get the criticism that you don’t have rules or standards. I like to say we have fewer rules, but the important ones. We want to make sure kids are progressing toward graduation and make sure we have academic standards in place. The small stuff should be somewhat inconsequential.”

One thing that won’t change is the NAIA allowing its coaches to recruit high school athletes with lesser restrictions than the consistently detracted NCAA and its much stricter policies.

“The time that coaches are spending with kids is a good thing, but it can get out of hand,” Carr said. “We believe that’s best left to the institution to determine that. We don’t want to err on making coaches fill out a phone log and have all these dark periods.

“We should be treating athletes, especially by the time they are seniors in high school, as young adults.”

This is a big part of the NAIA’s allure, but the problems still exist with the main one being financial equity.

“A vast majority of sports in the NAIA are not fully funded with athletic scholarships,” Miller said. “It is not the leading priority for the schools and usually is a financial risk to spend that kind of money. I would say that only 10 or 15 NAIA schools across the country are truly, fully funded through athletic scholarships. These are the schools that tend to win – a lot.”

ESPN deal and exposure

Then of course there is this little sports network called ESPN. The NAIA has seen an increase in coverage there.

Although they have to play their way on to the platform – akin to paid advertising – it shows a proactive attempt by the NAIA schools to push for more exposure.

“If you can cover the production then ESPN3 will broadcast it,” Carr said. “The Heart of America just did a deal to have a Game of the Week in football that will be on ESPN3. It depends on the deal you can strike between the $30,000 to put on a football game and then ESPN3 will carry that and they sell you as part of a package for advertising.”

Some decent numbers so far, according to Carr.

“How many people will actually watch it and if it costs you 20-30 grand a pop there are better ways to spend that money,” Carr said. “It would be nice if we had $2-3 million to spend, but do we spend it on 20-30 new ESPN games or do we spend on some new branding and marketing with high school kids.

“You only have so much money to spend so you have to be focused as you can on some of these decisions.”

There is also an NAIA Network and they are still considering opening up the national tournament feeds to be free one day, but for now it’s still only a pay-per-view option, as an “economic decision.”

“ESPN said they were pleased (with the NAIA Football Championship game) and said our numbers were equal to what they’ve done with D2 or D3,” Carr said. “I would say with a general rule our numbers have been good.”

A bigger future is possible. The struggle currently is the reality and progress is evident.

“I am very optimistic that we see an uptick based on the data around the recruitment and retention of members,” Carr said. “There will always be a place for the NAIA. The NCAA does a lot of good things, but it also has its detractors and it’s not the right place for everybody. There will always be an NAIA for the foreseeable future.”