Mike Higgins, director of championships at NAIA, was previously no less than vice president of events for the United States Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon. But he’s a self-described baseball guy. Higgins was senior vice president and general manager of the Portland Beavers, a minor league team affiliated with the San Diego Padres. He also worked in various management capacities in minor league baseball for 12 years. After two years at NAIA, Higgins is stepping a bit more into the batter’s box.
After Jamie Adams left the association to work at College of Saint Mary in Omaha, Nebraska, Higgins is the person making pitches for NAIA and its members. Connect Sports peppered Higgins with a few questions about what’s ahead for small-college athletics and his organization.
What’s the state of NAIA right now?
I’m really excited about the future opportunities of NAIA. It’s a great time to be in small college athletics. The disparity between big programs and little programs has never been wider, but I think that the value we have as an association for small colleges is fantastic right now.
What’s your pitch to communities to host your championships?
Our economic impact, in a lot of respects, is really strong. We bring a lot of athletes, families and participants to communities. A lot of problems you see coming from the big guys is what tends to be great about small-college athletics. It’s just that true playing for the love of game. It’s less of a money grab and more authentic athletics.
What’s a good fit to host NAIA events?
We see lot of interest from smaller DMO groups—that’s not to say big guys don't bid. One initiative I wanted to do when I got started were awards for hosts that excel. We launched those this past year. Sioux City, Iowa, was named best host. That’s a small community that's embraced NAIA championships. Many others do a fantastic job as well. Our baseball championship has been in Lewiston, Idaho, for 20 years. That’s a fantastic experience and draws really well. Everywhere you go they are talking about the NAIA World Series.
What sets NAIA events apart?
What we’re really focusing on in our championships department is what value we can bring to the student-athlete experience at a national championship. We’ve challenged our host partners to really think outside the box and come up with unique and memorable experiences that student athletes will remember. Many student-athletes are going to go to a national championship to compete, but in reality, most will always have that experience to fall back on if they did not win that national championship.
Can you tell us more about NAIA’s Champions of Character?
We’ve challenged our hosts to better engage with our Champions of Character initiative. Basically, all our student-athletes in national championships work on some sort of service project. A good example is men’s basketball in Kansas City. All 32 teams do school visits and put on assemblies at local elementary and junior high schools. We did some polling of our student-athletes at championships and a high percentage identify work they do with Champions of Character to be their most memorable experience.
What new championships are on the way at NAIA?
Our schools are really laser-focused on enrollment-based athletics. If we can go to members and say that by adding lacrosse or a cheer and dance program, this is what it could mean to your overall bottom line, that shows lot of value to our members. We added cheer and dance last year as our 25th national championship. Right around the corner are three sports: men’s and women’s lacrosse; men’s volleyball and men’s and women’s volleyball. Women’s wrestling could be a championship sport down the road.
How is NAIA involved in esports?
We helped launch a separate association of esports. We have probably over 40 member institutions playing esports now. This is a chance for that enrollment-based athletics model to thrive. A lot of schools mention that esports has has lot of positives related with STEM. A lot schools look at it differently. Some have it as a championship sport and deal with it under athletics. Some have it not under athletics. That was biggest reason looking at it to say it needs to be its own association.