NCAA tourney run can bring billions (with a 'B')

There was a time, before the University of Connecticut became a basketball powerhouse, when the word "UConn" conjured images of Canada's Northwest Territories. But after 1995, when the school's women's team won the first of its nine national championships, that all changed.

UConn star Rebecca Lobo, center, raises the NCAA trophy after winning the finals against the University of Tennessee, Minneapolis, MN, April 1995.
Bob Stowell | Getty Images
UConn star Rebecca Lobo, center, raises the NCAA trophy after winning the finals against the University of Tennessee, Minneapolis, MN, April 1995.

Those championships have not only boosted Huskies pride, they've helped to draw billions of dollars in public funds and alumni donations to upgrade UConn's academic infrastructure and the school's stature. Indeed, there are multiple examples of colleges previously unknown for their basketball programs that have prospered financially after making a deep run into the March Madness that surrounds the NCAA basketball tournament.

The same day the triumphant '95 Lady Huskies visited the state legislature, Connecticut lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to pump $1 billion into "UConn 2000," a campus-improvement project that has since followed the initial billion with another $1.3 billion.

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"UConn has been a serious academic institution for many decades, but athletics has enabled us to grow exponentially," said its former president, Philip Austin, shortly after the men's squad defeated Duke, 77–74, in the 1999 championship game. "It helps us recruit students, enhances our ability to sell our program to the state legislature, and energizes alumni and others who might be called on for philanthropic support."

Athletics, in this case, means basketball, and the positive effects among schools winning national championships in that sport have been the subject of numerous economic-impact studies. Beyond funding and donations to build on-campus facilities, there are significant upticks in corporate sponsorships, licensing deals, and ticket sales for sports teams, as well as huge increases in applications and enrollments resulting from media exposure valued in hundreds of millions of dollars.

Big business of basketball shoes
Big business of basketball shoes   

Most prominent among recent beneficiaries is Butler University, in Indianapolis. In the 2010 tourney, as champions of the Horizon League—a so-called mid-major conference, meaning not one of the brand-name ones such as the Big 10, Atlantic Coast, or Pac 12—the Bulldogs shocked the nation by advancing all the way to the champion game. They narrowly lost, 61–59, to Duke. Incredibly, they were runners up again a year later, falling to UConn, 53–41.

"Our corporate sponsors have grown significantly, which is attributable to our success in 2010 and 2011," said Barry Collier, Butler's director of athletics, who's also a 1976 graduate and former head basketball coach. "Licensing has jumped somewhere in the neighborhood of 350 percent."

There's no platform greater than the NCAA tournament for IMG College, a sports-marketing firm based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, said Tim Pernetti, the firm's president of multimedia. Part of IMG Worldwide, IMG college maintains exclusive rights with nearly 90 universities and conferences in 51 of the top 56 Nielsen markets.

"From our standpoint, we root for stuff like what happened to Butler," which jumped to the Atlantic 10 conference in 2013 and last year to the Big East. "Corporate sponsors want to be attached to that type of success, and that's where we help the schools identify solutions to drive revenue," he said.

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IMG College also worked with Virginia Commonwealth University, the other mid-major Cinderella in the 2011 Final Four. At the beginning of the 2010–11 season, VCU had 126 licensees, IMG College reported. After the school's unexpected NCAA Tournament run, it had 151, translating into a 219 percent bump in licensing royalties.

The George Mason University Patriots were the underdog darlings of the 2006 hoops tourney, upsetting Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State, and Connecticut before coming up short, 73–58, in the semifinals to Florida.

Afterward, the school conducted an internal study to gauge the financial and social benefits from its Final Four flourish. Overall revenue jumped to $634.1 million from $528.7 million. Fund-raising increased to $23.5 million from $19.6 million, while a capital campaign targeted to raise $100 million exceeded $132 million. George Mason had 38 licensees heading into 2006, according to IMG College, but after the Final Four, it had 53, leading to a $100,000 leap in licensing revenue.

More difficult to pinpoint is the dollar value of the intense multimedia attention that tourney schools enjoy after playing multiple games over the tournament's two weeks. Rather than a traditional return-on-investment calculation based on actual sales vs. costs, those totals are figured based on what colleges would pay for advertising and promotions across various media.

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For instance, following its 2010 tournament march, Butler commissioned a pair of firms to track TV, print, and online media publicity from March to December of that year. The tally topped out at more than $639 million, a figure that dropped to about $500 million after Butler's 2011 Final Four appearance. "We couldn't afford to buy the kind of exposure our team earned," Collins said.

George Mason conducted a similar estimate after the 2006 tourney, during which the Patriots were featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, a plum appearance that the Fairfax, Virginia-based university valued at more than $1.9 million. The school estimates it got free publicity worth a total of $677 million.

So what non-powerhouse teams might wear the Cinderella crown during this year's March Madness? Butler and VCU are on most bracketologists' lists, while Northern Iowa and Davidson are included in both of this week's top 25 polls. Depending on how the week's conference championships shake out—with winners earning automatic bids—others to watch might be St. Francis College in Brooklyn, Coastal Carolina, North Florida, and Yale.

"The television networks want big-name universities," said IMG College's Pernetti, "but it doesn't matter who you are or where you're seeded. When good things happen, it's a validation of the event."

Let the Madness begin.