Sweet 16 gives profile a jump to schools such as Xavier
Sweet 16 gives profile a jump
Small schools attract wider student choice
By David Holthaus Enquirer 3.23.12
Chester, Mont., is a small town, population about a thousand, 30 miles from the Canada border, known mainly for farming.
It’s not the kind of town Xavier University would even bother to recruit students from.
Tylor Hull grew up there playing sports and hanging out at Spuds Cafe, where his mother worked. When the time came to graduate from high school, most of his college-bound classmates went to the University of Montana or Montana State. But Tyler found his way to Cincinnati and the campus of Xavier University, his curiosity in the small Jesuit school sparked by its big success in playing basketball.
It’s one of the best benefits of success in the NCAA tournament, especially for schools that make an unexpected run: the chance to parlay a national audience of roughly 10 million viewers into more student recruits, more money and rosier reputations.
This year, the Sweet 16 is dominated by the Heartland Seven.
In an unusually strong showing from the nation’s middle, two schools from Cincinnati, four from Ohio and seven from the Tristate have made it to the NCAA tournament’s regional semifinals.
Ohio State, Kentucky and Louisville were expected to make it this far, as they are most years. Xavier has become a Sweet 16 regular, with five appearances in the last nine years, and for UC and Indiana, this year’s appearance means big steps forward in their comebacks to national prominence.
Ohio, meanwhile, should benefit the most as the underdog team that made it farther than it was expected to. The benefit is so visible it has a name: The Gonzaga Effect.
Gonzaga, a Catholic school of 7,600 in Spokane, Wash., made a thrilling run in the tournament in 1999, a streak so improbable it not only busted brackets, it vaulted the school into national attention.
Gonzaga’s gone on to make the tournament every year since then, but nearly every year a new Cinderella contender emerges.
Since then, The Gonzaga Effect could be renamed “The George Mason Effect” or “The Butler Effect.” Maybe this year it will be “The Bobcat Effect.”
Ohio University, which has made headlines for its rowdy Halloween parties and its top party-school ranking, finds its Bobcats in the spotlight now for basketball, the first time the team has made it this far since 1964.
Of the seven Heartlanders still playing, Ohio U. spends the least on its basketball program, $2.2 million, a pittance compared to what Cincinnati, Kentucky or Ohio State spend.
The Bobcats should get some bang for those bucks, with positive publicity that, even if money could buy it, would be awfully expensive.
“It opens a door to the university so people can begin to look at our great academic programs,” said OU president Roderick McDavis. “Athletics is a window into the university.”
He wants Ohio to capitalize quickly by selling itself to prospective students and by seeking donations from alumni and other contributors.
“From a marketing standpoint, having the brand out there all last week and this week makes a difference,” McDavis said.
At Xavier, the Muskie Effect happened first in 1990, when the Musketeers beat perennial power Georgetown to make it to the Sweet 16 for the first time.
Back in Montana, Tylor Hull remembered them from 2004, when he and his friends were poring over brackets. That year, Xavier made it to the Elite Eight.
“We would always bring out our brackets and see who would go deep in the tournament,” he said. “That was the first time I heard Xavier’s name repeatedly.”
In 2010, tiny Butler University (enrollment 4,400) in Indianapolis not only made it to the Sweet 16, but all the way to the national championship game. They did it again last year.
In 2011, the number of applications the school received surged 40 percent, said Tom Weede, vice president of enrollment. “It introduced us to a number of students who hadn’t known about us,” he says.
That, in turn, boosted the overall quality of the student body. “It made us significantly more selective,” he says.
Doug Olberding studies the impact of sports on economies and on institutional reputations. Making it this far into the tournament brings in new revenue, but the biggest plus is the positive exposure on national television.
“That’s the real benefit, the psychic benefit,” he says. “Especially for those institutions that aren’t the big land-grant schools like Kentucky and Ohio State.”
But the effect can be temporary, so a savvy administration will try to make the most of the spotlight while it can. “It’s ephemeral,” says Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College. “These effects are limited.”
So, run with it while you can, Zimbalist advises.
“Basically, the message is: ‘Have fun.’ ”