Cinderella Fellas

When the tournament clock tolls 0.00, what do Cinderella teams really go home to? The same old pumpkin, or a chariot of publicity? The following is a case study of one of America’s favorite fairy tale teams.

By Chris Frye, Dr. Carl Bozman, and Dr. David Stotlar

Chris Frye is the former Director of Marketing for the Gonzaga University Athletic Department and a Doctoral Student in Sport Management at the University of Northern Colorado. Carl Bozman, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Business Administration at Gonzaga and David Stotlar, EdD, is a Professor of Kinesiology and Physical Education at Northern Colorado.

Athletic Management, 14.6, October/November 2002,

What’s the best part of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament? Many fans say it’s rooting for the Cinderella teams. When a little-known school upsets a major conference champ, the buzz is deafening.

It’s obvious that underdogs who advance in the tournament get publicity in major media outlets. But how much do their schools really benefit from this exposure? And which benefits are most significant? In this article, we’ll take a look at how one small private institution, Gonzaga University, benefitted from its Elite Eight appearance three years ago.

Direct Publicity
A small Catholic school located in Spokane, Wash., Gonzaga has a graduate and undergraduate enrollment of less than 5,000 students. Over 60 percent of these students come from homes more than 300 miles away. Although the Bulldogs belong to the West Coast Conference and participate in 14 Division I sports, media coverage of the school is typically local and focused more on academic activities and achievements than on sports.

In 1999, the Gonzaga Bulldogs made it to the fourth round of the NCAA basketball tournament, the Elite Eight, where they were eliminated by the eventual national champion. In 2000, Gonzaga advanced to the Sweet 16 of the tournament. Previously, the school had competed in the tournament only one other time, in 1995, and lost in the first round.

The unprecedented success of the Bulldogs in the 1999 NCAA basketball tournament brought with it a substantial amount of media coverage, as did its performance in 2000. For a small institution like Gonzaga, this coverage created a level of publicity that was overwhelming in many respects.

Increased awareness of the university was the initial and most obvious consequence of this attention. Although all schools that participate in the tournament receive publicity, underdogs tend to receive even greater levels of public exposure.

Gonzaga did not control the messages conveyed during the NCAA tournament. School officials did, however, take every opportunity to shape the content of the messages. They did this by making sure interviews with Gonzaga administrators, students, coaches, and boosters were positive and upbeat.

Publicity concerning Gonzaga came primarily through radio and television broadcasts and the print media. According to Dale Goodwin, Director of Public Relations at Gonzaga, over 10,000 stories were produced about Gonzaga by regional and national media during the Bulldogs’ participation in the 1999 NCAA tournament. Almost every regional and national media outlet was talking about the school and its basketball program, and this coverage increased with each step up the tournament ladder.

Gonzaga University received at least 10 minutes of national airtime throughout each tournament day (this does not include any exposure that occurred while a game was being played). From March 10-21, 1999, the three major networks’ (ABC, CBS, NBC) Gonzaga affiliates devoted an average of 12 minutes to some aspect of Gonzaga University in every 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. newscast. In fact, all three local network affiliates produced their entire news broadcast from the Gonzaga campus from March 16-21.

Many newspapers published one or more of the 250 different print articles produced by the national wire services between March 1 and 30, 1999. These articles, as well as many regionally produced stories, appeared almost daily in the Pacific Northwest and much of the West Coast. Articles in national newspapers such as USA Today, The New York Times, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Los Angeles Times, and The Denver Post were common.

More than 100 Gonzaga University staff, faculty, students, and alumni were also interviewed by radio stations across the country. These radio broadcasts gave their listeners a better sense of Gonzaga, Spokane, and the surrounding area. Over the entire tournament period, Gonzaga had at least one two-minute interview each day on over 100 stations in a variety of markets, large and small.

Although a quantitative measure of publicity value is impossible to estimate, an objective measure of what an equivalent amount of media exposure would have cost through the same channels is possible. To do this, we took a random sample of the stories involving Gonzaga. Value was determined by measuring each sample element using the Standardized Advertising Unit system and calculating the costs for media placement from published sources. The average value of the sampled media space (or time) was $6,315 per story. A conservative estimate of the total value of all publicity was $37.8 million.

The Initial Response
How did Gonzaga realize if any of this publicity was translating into interest in the school? The most immediate feedback came via the university Web site. This Web site had already been operating for some time, but it received significantly higher usage during the basketball tournament. According to Gonzaga University Webmaster Chris Schindler, the increased interest was a direct result of all the media exposure.

Gonzaga received so many hits on the days following wins over Minnesota and Stanford that the site crashed. Unfortunately, it took three working days to bring it back online.

During the month of March 1999, Gonzaga’s Web site experienced nearly a three-fold increase from its typical monthly usage. The Web page experienced one million hits in February. In the month of March, it displayed a dramatic jump up to 2.83 million hits, despite the three days of downtime due to the crash.

Of these inquiries, the greatest percentage of hits were directed to the athletics page. Previous Gonzaga efforts to generate Web traffic suggest that an attempt to replicate a similar increase in activity through promotional activity would have cost the school a minimum of $100,000.

Enrollment & Financial Gains
The two incoming classes since the 1999 tournament have been the largest freshman classes in school history. While the class entering in the fall of 1998 (the class of 2002) introduced 565 freshmen to the campus, the class entering in 1999 was 701 freshmen strong, which is a 24-percent increase. The next class boasted 796 freshmen, a 41-percent increase from two years previous.

Because the undergraduate application deadline is in February and the NCAA tournament is in March, the university did not receive more applications for the class of 2003 due to the 1999 tournament appearance. The 1999 numbers showed only a two-percent increase in total freshman inquiries and total freshman applications increased by 12 percent. Therefore, the school produced a high yield: It simply attracted more accepted students who in years past would have selected to attend other institutions. However, before Gonzaga’s 2000 appearance in the NCAA tournament, freshman inquiries were up 32 percent from the previous year.

There were also gains in the fund-raising department. From 1994-1998, the total gift summary for the athletic department had its ups and downs, says Mike Hogan, Associate Athletic Director for Development at Gonzaga. The numbers, chronologically, were $202,000, $227,000, $383,000, $270,000, and $165,000. By the end of the 1999 fiscal year (which runs from June to May at Gonzaga), the gift summary was $282,000. By the end of the 2000 fiscal year, the total financial commitment to the athletic department was $444,000 with an additional one million dollar endowment.

This positive trend was seen in overall giving to the university as well. In 1997-98, university gift commitments reached $9.7 million. The following year, the university received $13.3 million. By the 1999-2000 fiscal year, commitments had reached a record-high $16.5 million.

Season ticket sales also increased. During the 1998-99 season, season ticket sales totaled $65,000. During 1999-2000, the season following the trip to the Elite Eight, season ticket sales more than doubled and were only capped by the capacity of the facility.

The Gonzaga athletic department is continuing to experience financial benefits following the men’s basketball team’s trips deep into the NCAA tournament. These benefits include larger donations from active boosters, an increase in the number of new donors, and initial discussions for more endowments, says Hogan. In addition, over 900 freshmen enrolled in the school for 2002-03 academic year.

Elevated booster interest has led to greater involvement in capital planning and other major projects, including the building of a new arena, due to open in October 2004. The Bulldogs are also enjoying national recognition with major corporations, which has increased the university’s ability to market and promote the athletic department. For example, Gonzaga now has a formal agreement with Collegiate Licensing Company, the nation’s leading collegiate licensing group.

Making It Work
While no one can predict when an underdog is going to shake up the tournament, a university can be prepared to make the most of its Cinderella team, if such an opportunity arises. The key is identifying the steps that are necessary to move important constituencies to engage in desired behaviors, such as donations, enrollment, volunteerism, and employment.

In marketing circles, analysts often look at a “hierarchy of effects” model to realize outcomes. This model presumes that the outcomes associated with regional and national sports coverage will take time to develop. The model also breaks responses into the three stages an audience is expected to go through.

The first stage, known as the cognitive stage, represents what viewers know or perceive about an organization. This stage would include factors such as an awareness that something exists and knowledge of its attributes. Gonzaga’s publicity during the tournament helped audiences know the school existed and about some of its values and history.

The emotive stage refers to the feelings viewers have regarding a specific brand. This stage incorporates a range of emotions, from mild assessments of like or dislike to strong brand preference. Because a Cinderella team is usually seen as a hard-working group of humble heroes, audiences quickly developed a strong liking for the school. This interest was verified by the increased number of visitors to the school’s Web site during the tournament.

The behavior stage is reflected in actions. This could include anything from endorsing an organization to buying a product with the school’s name on it. The increase in enrollments and financial contributions proved audiences did advance to the behavior stage in Gonzaga’s story.

Using a hierarchy of effects model can help an institution predict the responses to being a Cinderella team and thus help steer the responses to be most advantageous to the school. It can also ensure that the university minimizes any potential adverse consequences associated with national publicity.

For example, if an increase in enrollments is the institution’s number-one strategic goal, then the PR department might want to pitch story ideas to reporters about interesting things on campus outside of athletics. If the top goal is furthering other sports teams on campus, the sports information director and coach may want to promote a player who also plays a second sport at the school or suggest that television interviews be conducted in the newest athletic facility on campus.

The strategies that can be employed are endless. The key is knowing that the potential for a huge response is there, and then capitalizing on it to promote your school in ways that further its strategic plan.

Remember, Cinderella’s looks and charm enabled her to win big at the dance. But it was Disney’s marketing that made her a household name.

Sidebar: Valparaiso’s Numbers
Gonzaga University’s increased publicity through its NCAA tournament runs is not atypical. Valparaiso University made it to the Sweet Sixteen in 1998 and saw dramatic changes in its enrollments and fund-raising dollars, says Barbara Neff, Assistant to the Vice President of Admissions, Financial Aid, and Marketing at the school.

To help value its publicity from the event, Valparaiso employed Video Monitoring Services of America and Burrelle’s News Clipping Service. These two companies placed a conservative price tag for the Valparaiso publicity at $24 million.

Like Gonzaga, Valparaiso has a February application deadline for incoming freshmen, and did not experience a large increase in applications or enrollments in the Fall of 1998. However, the Crusaders welcomed their largest freshman class in a decade during the second year following their run to the Sweet 16.

Valparaiso also has experienced increases in financial commitments and a growth in corporate donors since 1998, says Jim Noffke, Director of Development at the school. The additions to the university budget allowed Valparaiso to pursue several special projects and one million dollars worth of improvements to The Athletic Recreation Center.