This past spring, Dr. Kiki Baker Barnes became the first full-time staff member in the 40-year history of the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference (GCAC), a conference of historically Black colleges and universities that compete under the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).
For the three years prior, Barnes served as both interim commissioner of the GCAC on a part-time basis and athletic director of Dillard University in Louisiana, a member institution in the conference.
Under her direction as commissioner, the GCAC is now expanding. This spring, the conference added three new institutions, and Barnes is determined to increase its impact.
“This is an incredibly important and huge step in the history of the GCAC,” she says. “We are very excited about what we’re going to continue to do in terms of membership growth. … We can do more in terms of helping the institutions.”
Barnes sees the ability of student-athletes to make money from their name, image and likeness (NIL), which the NAIA approved in 2019 (two years before the NCAA), as one of the most pressing issues currently in intercollegiate athletics.
“The student-athletes who are interested in really pursuing the NIL route, how can we as a conference provide them with education and support to help them understand the ins and outs of growing a brand, growing your influence,” says Barnes. “We need to ensure that these student-athletes get the support that they need so they understand all the ramifications that come with basically being a business.”
Barnes calls herself “The Athletics Strategist™”, providing strategic consultation for college athletics programs, as well as mentoring young women of color aspiring to careers in college sports. She consults with colleges and universities on strategic planning, leadership training and development, departmental assessments, policy and procedure reviews and team building. This is valuable support she wishes she’d had as a young and relatively inexperienced athletic director.
While Barnes had been a student-athlete and a basketball coach, she’d left the world of college sports to earn her doctorate in higher education administration. She unexpectedly became the athletic director of Dillard in 2006, when the New Orleans-based university needed a new AD following Hurricane Katrina. She admits that she initially felt imposter syndrome.
“I’d proven over and over again that I certainly was ready, but it did not stop sometimes feeling self-doubt and lack of self-confidence,” she says.
In the first few years after Katrina, the athletic department had almost no resources as the Dillard campus had been decimated. In addition, Barnes didn’t have a network to tap into.
“One of the reasons I started my program ‘So You Want a Career in Athletics’ was because I didn’t have a network of women athletic directors that I could reach out to or women who had walked my path,” she says.
“My colleagues ended up being great sources of information. They made themselves available, but I didn’t walk into the position having that network.”
Barnes is excited by the possibilities of NIL, saying it gives student-athletes at all levels — from NCAA Divisions I, II and III to NJCAA (two-year colleges) and NAIA — opportunities to learn about business, brand development and marketing. While high-profile student-athletes are making headlines with big endorsement deals, the potential of learning from NIL is greater for less well known student-athletes. NAIA has an agreement with Opendorse, a company that utilizes social media to connect athletes with brands and fans and educates student-athletes on the rules and dynamics of deals.
“It’s developing a business … and being entrepreneurs,” Barnes says. “That’s probably more applicable for the not so famous athletes versus those who are getting straight endorsements.”
One of the important things Barnes feels she can impact as a commissioner is working collectively from the conference office to generate funding and sponsorship that will allow member institutions to create positive and unique student-athlete experiences. This would include programming that exposes student-athletes to career paths.
In terms of people holding leadership positions in intercollegiate athletics, women of color are advancing, with an increasing number of head coaches, athletic directors and conference commissioners, but there is a long way to go. Barnes has “Kiki’s Keys”, five key things to amplifying the voices of women of color who want to increase their career opportunities: credibility, competency, communication, critical thinking and connecting with others.
While there are more women of color in leadership today — including the conference commissioners of NCAA Division I and II conferences comprised of HBCU institutions — Barnes still sees a definite need to propel professional development. Upon her leaving Dillard, there is not a single female AD in the state of Louisiana.
Sixteen years after taking on the role of athletic director, Barnes is a full-time conference commissioner. Thankfully, she now has a vast network that includes women commissioners and athletic directors as well as several male and female college and university presidents who have been mentors and advisors.
“When I think about what I’m facing as a commissioner, my top three things right now are: working to build a team,” Barnes says. “I’m focusing on what the team looks like at the conference level, since I’m the first full-time employee.
“Second, building community,” she continues. “Unlike the other four HBCU conferences that exist within the athletics sphere, we don’t necessarily have a collective community around this conference … There are some different things we will be doing in terms of how we host our championships.”
The third challenge is finding resources, such as corporate partners who want to grow with the NCAC. An issue many smaller schools and conferences face, particularly within NAIA, is finding companies and businesses that want to invest in and partner with them.
“We’re having conversations conference-wide about the companies we have synergies with where we’re already doing business and let’s talk with them about how we can strengthen those partnerships,” Barnes says.
“Now that I am full-time, I have the opportunity to manage and maintain those relationships to ensure that we’ll be able to fulfill whatever needs our partner would like as well as them supporting initiatives that we want to move forward.”