#GamedayInsider: What Makes a Venue Championship Worthy?
When you submit your bid for the next collegiate championship event, ask yourself, is my venue ‘selfie’ material?
In our sixth installment of #GamedayInsider, Michael Higgins, Director of Championships for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, gives us the inside scoop on exactly what the creators of small school student-athlete experiences look for in a championship bid.
AS: Can you talk a bit about your role with the NAIA working on championships? What exactly are you tasked with?
MH: I’m in charge of producing the 28 national championships that our collegiate sports association produces each year and all sports that are considered at the championship level. And I’ve got a fantastic team here. Each championship manager runs typically 3 to 4 sports that they’re in charge of. They foster those sports’ growth, their coaches’ association, their rules of that sport and then the national championship of that sport. That’s kind of broad brush.
AS: The NAIA governs small college athletics programs. Can you explain the difference between a small school championship and other championships?
MH: We at the NAIA are built upon the mission to enhance small school enrollment through what we call ‘Return on Athletics.’ By adding a sport that offers student-athletes a chance to compete in a national championship, a small institution may be able to add headcount. This mentality has led to a lot of resurgence in athletics programs. We’ve seen sports like men’s and women’s bowling, women’s wrestling, men’s volleyball, beach volleyball, men’s and women’s lacrosse being added, and as I mentioned, we’re up to 28 championships, and counting.
AS: What do you look for in a potential NAIA championship host venue?
MH: We typically look for hosts that could become long term partners and create the kind of satisfaction that our student-athletes and coaches are looking for. We’re the oldest basketball championship in the country. 2020 will be the 83rd year, and for the larger part of those 83 years, the NAIA Men’s Basketball Championship has been in Kansas City, MO, where we are headquartered. This is the template for what an NAIA championship looks like with a long term partner.
AS: What factors hold the most weight when evaluating a championship bid?
MH: We’ve developed a scoring mechanism for selecting hosts, and we work really hard to try to microscopically figure out what’s most important to our student-athletes and our coaches at national championships. Far and away, the two most important factors are 1: the venue’s ability to provide a championship-level atmosphere and then 2: the overall fan experience.
AS: How do you build this bid-scoring mechanism? Who decides what is important?
MH: We do a lot of polling with student-athletes to find out what makes a great championship for them, and our team is tasked with partnering with hosts that can provide the type of experience that the student-athletes expect — from the environment to the venue. We really strive to make it a memorable experience for our athletes, first and foremost.
AS: What do student-athletes want in a championship venue?
MH: When we make the selection, we’re trying to find a facility that our student-athletes believe would be championship-worthy. We’re looking for those ‘mouth drops’ when a student enters a venue… You want them to take out their phone and share that moment with their friends. It’s creating a moment in time where the student-athlete can say, ‘Man, I’m playing in a venue that’s worthy of a national championship.’ And we all know these experiences don’t happen too often in life.
AS: How do you determine which hosts will drive the highest attendance?
MH: The ability to attract fans to the venue is extremely important, and we work with our hosts on this, but when we’re selecting the location for a championship, we want to feel confident that the fans will show up. Of course there is never a guarantee, but if a host shows us they are willing to promote the event in the media, do the things they must do to draw attendance, that makes a big difference. Fans in seats make a difference in the experience, for the athletes, the fans, and of course for revenue.
AS: How do you measure a venue’s ability to create a great fan experience?
MH: We are looking at their ability to create a really compelling game atmosphere. One of the main elements is the in-game operations: the scoreboard, the concourse vendors, the PA announcements, the excitement. We also want to get a sense for how far that venue, that town, that promoter is willing to go to welcome our athletes — make them feel the love in a big way. This is their moment, and the host venues that embrace that do really well.
AS: What other factors come into play when evaluating a championship location?
MH: We look at the geographic location of the host, hotel availability and proximity to the venue... And then there’s what we call the student-athlete experience. The host is tasked with putting on an interactive event for the athletes, and the locations that do it well have come up with some really cool ideas. For example, at our football championship in Daytona Beach, our student-athletes got to tour the Daytona Motor Speedway. In the past they even got to go take hot laps in the cars. Again, we want these experiences to be worthy of not only a championship.. But worthy of a “selfie” at each turn.
AS: Do you have specific examples of host cities that have successfully created a championship-worthy experience?
MH: Lewiston, Idaho, one of our long-time host cities for baseball, does a great job and has been doing so for years. Everywhere you go you see signs that say “Welcome to the NAIA Championship”. You see restaurant and hotel workers all wearing NAIA t-shirts. You go to the grocery store and there’s a giant display of Pepsi products that spell NAIA. The local media is covering the event. Cities like Lewiston have been able to integrate our championships into the community and create a buzz that brings fans to the venue and gives our student-athletes once in a lifetime experiences. When all of the elements come together this way, it really is magical.