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Team Spirit

Team Spirit

Missouri Valley College is a powerhouse of sorts among men’s rodeo teams in the seven-state Ozark Region. The men’s rodeo team reigned as Ozark Region champions between 2008 and 2012 and dropped to second in the region only once during the past six years. Three Missouri Valley College team members finished in the top 10 of their competitive events at the College Nationals Final Rodeo in Wyoming last June. And the women’s team has finished second in the Ozark Region twice in recent years.

As singular as MVC’s rodeo teams are, they’re just two of more than two dozen varsity teams the college is fielding this year. Two of those teams, men’s and women’s lacrosse, are new to the lineup. Leaders of the small private liberal arts college consider its teams an important means of attracting students to the main campus in Marshall, Mo., not so much for the chance to cheer on their teams, though MVC athletes have their share of boosters. Rather, sports teams, along with such offerings as choir and theater, are a way to attract student-athletes eager to take part in college activities, says MVC Athletic Director Tom Fifer.

“We have to offer something to get them here that isn’t offered by the other smaller schools,” Fifer says. “Instead of going somewhere and being a number, they can come here and participate.”

The enrollment effect

Missouri Valley College may well be in the regional vanguard of small college athletics. Still, MVC is not alone among Missouri colleges and universities in adding athletic teams or facilities during the past few years to either directly or indirectly support enrollment.

Data gathered by the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics over the past few years reveals a surge of new teams sponsored by small Missouri colleges and universities. Some teams failed, and others were launched, but Missouri’s 14 NAIA members show a net gain of eight teams between the 2011-2012 academic year and the 2012-2013 academic year, according to the Kansas City, Mo.-based NAIA’s figures. Although the number of teams dipped for the 2013-2014 academic year, generally it’s been on the rise.

Michael Brooks, NAIA manager of development and corporate sponsorships, points to a few reasons for the apparent trend. First is the competitive nature of higher education. Once a college successfully introduces a sport, other institutions in the region are inclined to follow in hopes of imitating that success, Brooks says. “Competitive schools replicate success,” he says.

Success also lays a foundation. It’s easier for small institutions to establish new teams in a sport that other colleges in the area also sponsor; competitors are ready-made, and travel costs are lower. And finally, Brooks notes that today’s college students are showing an interest in sports other than the traditional standbys. That’s not to say football and basketball are going by the wayside; far from it. But students are increasingly looking at sports such as bowling, lacrosse and men’s volleyball as their sports of choice. Small colleges and universities are striving to meet student expectations by starting teams in these so-called emerging sports, Brook says.

However these teams perform, they give their alma maters an edge. Sports are high on the list of amenities high school students look at when they’re considering what college to attend, says Ryan Munce, vice president of myCollegeOptions.org, a not-for-profit college planning organization based in Lee’s Summit, Mo. Indeed, myCollegeOptions.org reports that 65 percent of the high school seniors the organization surveyed last academic year plan to play varsity sports in college. And they’re not all looking for Rose Bowl-caliber teams.

“There’s definitely an enrollment impact on smaller institutions when they can offer sports programs in the mix,” Munce says. “I would say that better is always better, but the reality is that there are students who want to play at all skill levels.”

The ambience of athletics

Adding 20 or so student-athletes to a college with a total enrollment of 400 or 500 can make a substantial financial difference, Munce notes. But it’s not all about growth. Some small colleges and universities are making considerable investments in athletic facilities and new teams to accommodate their current students and burnish their overall appeal.

Take Central Methodist University, for example. The Fayette, Mo.-based private university has made about $5 million in improvements to its athletic facilities since 2007. The work, financed by alumni donations, upgraded the facilities for the majority of Central Methodist University’s teams. Included in CMU’s upgrade were:

• Puckett Fieldhouse, remodeled for basketball and volleyball teams
• Davis Field, renovated for football, soccer and track teams
• Cox Softball Complex, built for softball teams
• Estes Field, renovated for baseball team
• Hairston Track, widened for track and field
• Mabee Athletic Facility, built to house an athletic weight room and coaches offices

Yet the athletic facility facelift aimed to sustain the overall campus environment rather than increase enrollment, CMU President Roger Drake says. Pointing to CMU’s addition of men’s and women’s golf teams in 2009, Drake notes CMU can directly attribute an enrollment increase of only about 30 students to changes in CMU’s athletic programs. The athletic facility upgrades allow CMU to better serve existing students and should be placed in the context of the university’s $45 million capital campaign for improvements throughout its main campus, Drake says.

Still, Drake gives a nod to the relationship between athletics and enthusiasm for campus life as a whole. And though Drake believes improved athletic facilities and programs provide just one more reason to attend CMU, he says: “It is far easier to attract a student to a more vibrant campus.”

Columbia College also has expanded its athletic offerings considerably in recent years, though its expansion has focused on the teams themselves.

The private, Columbia-based college doubled the number of its sports teams in 2012, adding five new teams to bring its total to 10. The new teams — namely women’s soccer, men’s and women’s cross-country and men’s and women’s golf teams — increased the number of student-athletes from about 75 students to more than 140 students, says Cindy Potter, Columbia College’s associate director of athletics.

Yet Columbia College did not add the teams to boost its student residential population. “Obviously, that’s a byproduct, and that’s great for the college,” Potter says. “But that really wasn’t the intent.”

College athletic leaders say the new teams bolster more indirect goals, with a better position in the NAIA’s American Midwest Conference prominent among them. Athletic conferences are changing at all levels, and strengthening Columbia College’s sport offerings will allow it to better handle any realignments, says Athletic Director Bob Burchard. Burchard adds that the college also needed more individual sports and a men’s sport in the spring.

With those goals achieved, the high profile of college sports means athletic program improvements may well translate into enrollment increases. Successful sports teams appeal to prospective students, and the ability to attract highly successful students through the college’s athletic programs is valuable, Burchard says. It all adds up to a more attractive environment.
“To be honest, everything you do is enrollment,” he says.

Diversifying sports teams

Less traditional sports are increasingly part of the package that small colleges and universities have to offer. Student interests are more diverse than in the past, having shifted to a wide range of less established sports such as women’s wrestling, rowing or lacrosse, says Brooks with the NAIA. Higher education is responding with a new slew of teams. Brooks points to the selection of new Missouri college teams launched in the 2012-2013 academic year, a handful of which were emerging sports.

“The majority of the new sports were traditional,” Brooks says. “But you wouldn’t have seen any emerging sports at all 20 years ago.”

Missouri Valley College is responding to that change in athletic perceptions by adding both men’s and women’s lacrosse to its roster of teams, Fifer says. He points out that more than 275,000 high school students were playing lacrosse as of 2011, according to data collected by US Lacrosse, the national governing body for lacrosse. The number of lacrosse participants across age groups has more than doubled during the past 10 years, the US Lacrosse Web site states.

Given that MVC already had the required athletic facilities — its natural grass Reed Kepner Soccer Field is suitable for both practice and games — the decision to add lacrosse teams was a natural one, Fifer says. Eventually Fifer expects MVC’s lacrosse teams to be two of many, and he anticipates bringing together lacrosse players from a few different states on Sept. 28 for the college’s first Fall Brawl. But for now, Fifer hopes the new teams will take a little pressure off some of MVC’s more traditional sports teams while maintaining or increasing the college’s enrollment.

“It’s more looking at the long-range enrollment goals of Missouri Valley,” Fifer says.

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