As the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments head into their respective championships next weekend, one need only look at George Mason University's improbable run to the Final Four in last year's men's tourney for proof.
GMU, a mostly commuter school in Fairfax, Va., shocked the basketball world in 2006 by beating such established hoop heavyweights as Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut before losing to eventual national champion University of Florida in the semifinals.
Other than a 15-second spot for the school, GMU did no advertising. But its success on the court and the subsequent national TV and print coverage resulted in a whopping windfall in the aftermath.
Applications to the school quadrupled (tuition is $6,408 for in-state students, $18,548 for out-of-state). Gifts and pledge payments soared to $23.2 million, up 25% from the previous year. Donations to the athletic department increased 25%, general-scholarship support tripled and unrestricted gifts to the university climbed nearly 45%. Chevrolet and Remax signed on as program and arena sponsors.
GMU sold $625,000 in school merchandise during the 2004-05 school year. In the month of March alone last year, the school sold $876,000 in licensed products.
Winning prospective students
"Some [prospective] students are indeed swayed by the athletic success of a school," said Paul Swangard, director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Center for Sports Marketing. "It is part of the package, part of the total college experience."
GMU President Alan G. Merten said the basketball team's run "raised the profile of our institution in ways we had previously only dreamed about. It is impossible to put a precise figure on the amount of free publicity we have received in the past year. But it has been enormous."
C. Scott Bozman, associate professor-business marketing at Gonzaga University, has studied the benefits of the men's basketball team's success at Gonzaga. The small school in Spokane, Wash., made a similar run in the 1999 NCAA tournament when it came out of nowhere to make the Elite Eight.
Since then, prospective-student inquiries have increased by 3,000 a year, enrollment has risen to 6,700 from 4,400 in 1998 and annual fundraising has risen by more than $5 million.
Mr. Bozman said it would have taken a $50 million advertising/PR campaign to garner the number of media mentions George Mason received in three weeks last March.
Officials at other schools are realizing similar bumps. Boise State University in Idaho shocked the college-football world with a 43-42 win over mighty Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl less than three months ago, and is kicking off a major private-fundraising drive. At Rutgers, in New Jersey, the success of the school's first bowl victory in 132 years of football has resulted in a 34% jump in hits on the undergraduate-admissions website, a 20% spike in merchandise sales and a 9% rise in donor pledges.
But Andrew Zimbalist, a noted sports-economics professor at Smith College, said schools need to be careful. "A school can get a short-term kick, but the gain won't sustain itself."
So who is this year's George Mason? Well, Cinderella's slipper hasn't fit very well in the men's tournament, where the Sweet 16 was loaded with tradition-laden programs.
Marist's 'two-hour infomercial'
But in the women's tournament, tiny Marist College in upstate New York shocked the establishment by making it to the Sweet 16 with wins over Ohio State in the first round of the tourney -- the Buckeyes were the fifth-ranked team in the country at the time -- and then over Middle Tennessee State, which had a nation's-best 27-game winning streak in the second round. Marist faced fourth-ranked Tennessee on Sunday, only the third time in the history of the women's tournament a team seeded 13th has advanced so far.
The victories were splashed across papers all over the country, including USA Today and The New York Times, and were the lead stories on ESPN's TV coverage on those nights. "I am amazed at the amount of attention this has created," said Tim Murray, Marist's director of athletics. "It will be interesting to see what the fallout and residuals will be. Does women's basketball have that kind of power?"
Asked if Marist would take advantage of its success by running a 15- or 30-second commercial on ESPN's telecast of the game against Tennessee, Mr. Murray said the school had something longer in mind. "How long is the game going to be on? Two hours? That's a two-hour infomercial for us."