UMBC looks to ensure its March Madness Cinderella story has lasting impact

CHARLOTTE, NC - MARCH 16: The UMBC Retrievers celebrate their 74-54 victory over the Virginia Cavaliers during the first round of the 2018 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Spectrum Center on March 16, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

  • Administrators determined to make sure short-term sporting success leads to wider long-term benefits   
  • Student applications and visits have risen since historic upset over Virginia at NCAA tournament   
  • Attendances for Retrievers games and merchandise sales have significantly climbed year-on-year  

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) has taken significant steps to ensure that its  ’one shining moment’  at the NCAA men’s basketball tournament will have long-lasting effects.  

Last year UMBC thrust itself into the national spotlight when the Retrievers upset Virginia – who were the top-ranked team in the nation – with a 74-54 victory in the first round of March Madness.  

It was the first time – in 136 attempts – a No 16 seed had defeated a No 1 seed since the NCAA men’s tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, and the most lopsided victory in March Madness history by a 14, 15 or 16 seed.  

But what made this Cinderella story  even more  noteworthy was the fact UMBC had no real history of basketball success up until then. Indeed, the small, public research university was better known for its strengths in academics – primarily science and technology – and chess, in which it has won six national intercollegiate championships.   

The magic did not last long – UMBC lost to Kansas State in the second round – but the huge exposure that the university gained has led to  tangible gains across the campus. These  include  increases in student admissions and visits from potential students, financial gifts from donors, and rises in ticket and merchandise sales in the athletics department.   

It is a phenomenon known as the ‘Flutie effect’, named after Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie, who in 1984 threw a dramatic last-second touchdown pass to beat the University of Miami on national television. Applications to Boston College surged as a result and there have been numerous examples since of successful college sports teams increasing both the quantity and the quality of students their universities can expect to attract.  

The Virginia Cavaliers tip off against the UMBC Retrievers in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Spectrum Center on March 16, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Aware of this, staff members at UMBC knew they had to capitalize on the moment. “We knew that…if you’re successful in basketball and can do it on a recurring basis you can benefit from enrolment increases, funding increases and recruit better student athletes in other sports,” Tim Hall, the UMBC Athletics Director, tells  SportBusiness.  

“It happened quicker than we thought but we had a template in place that, ‘when this does happen, how are we going to capitalize and mobilize?’ We had been to the men’s and women’s tournaments before I came here, and the athletics department didn’t really capitalize on them.   

“What is as important – or more important in many respects – is what you do after you achieve that significant success and how you are going to capitalize on that in all facets in order to position the programme in a more pre-eminent position.” 

Twitter account jumped from 5,400 to 111,000 followers 
For the athletics department, the positive effects of beating Virginia happened in real time. UMBC Athletics’ Twitter account – which live-tweeted the game to great acclaim – went from about 5,400 followers before the tournament to more than 41,000 by the time the match ended and about 111,000 two days later. A year on, it still has close to 85,000 followers.  

Meanwhile: over 4,700 articles worldwide mentioned UMBC’s March Madness win; the university trended globally on Twitter; traffic to UMBC’s website more than quadrupled, while UMBC’s own coverage of the game earned nearly 50,000 reads in the immediate post-match period.   

Attendances for Retrievers games at the  5,000-seat, $85m (€76m)  UMBC Event Center have gone up from an average of 1,100 in 2018 to 2,400 this year, with some games having crowds of over 3,000. “This is paid tickets,” says Hall. When I got here six years ago, if there were 600 people at a game, 400 were comped [given away for free].”  

Ticket revenue is up 114 per cent in total year-on-year while season-ticket sales have risen 133 per cent.   

The UMBC Retrievers fans cheer during the first round of the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament against the Virginia Cavaliers. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

These rises are partly on the back of increased efforts to improve the fan experience at games – such as theme nights – which the athletics department introduced after the Virginia victory. “At the mid-major level, to be a success you need to have a bunch of things going on other than the basketball,” Hall says. “In terms of discretionary spending, people aren’t saying ‘Washington Capitals tickets or UMBC tickets?’ they are saying,  ’going to a UMBC basketball game compared to dinner and a movie’.   

“The success has allowed us to increase corporate sponsorships and partnerships that has enabled us to have various academic nights with all the academic units at the games; the towns around us will have a Catonsville Night or an Arbutus Night. We’re doing all this stuff on a higher and more specific level and I think it’s because of the success that ultimately there can be a product that can be the anchor for all of that.”  

In the 24 hours after the victory, the school bookstore – which sells UMBC merchandise – sold around 3,300 items online, more than double its standard yearly business. According to Hall, sports merchandise sales have risen 40 per cent in the past year. But he adds: “Our numbers were relatively  small so you have to keep this in context. The percentage figure is large but in the dollar figure we’re not going to compare to a Michigan or a Duke.”  

UMBC also applied to the US Patent and Trademark Office to copyright the phrases “Retrievers,” “Retriever Nation” and “16 over 1” to help sell official licensed products, such as clothing and footwear, in partnership with Under Armor. “[We took] the opportunity for ’16 over 1′ to be ours because we were the first to be a 16 over a one [seed]. It’s part of our history [now] and it’s a really positive part of our history,” says Hall.   

Notably, more student-athletes – and those of greater athletic ability – have considered joining UMBC than in the past. Hall notes: “We’re a pretty academically-rigorous institution and have pretty stringent entrance requirements but I think our coaches are still focused on the same high-level students and I think it may have gotten a little bit better there.   

“But where it’s got a lot better is kids that are more talented athletically and can play at a level above us are showing interest in us now we have a successful programme and have had success.“  

And not just in men’s basketball. “Our women’s soccer coach told me recently a family said, ‘We hadn’t thought of UMBC but you’re the underdogs and you’re on the national scene so let’s see what that’s all about’,” says Hall. “I think all of our  programmes, to an increased degree, are being able to get in the conversation with a higher-level talent academic and athletic kid because of the success men’s basketball had.” 

Rise in student visits and donations  
The university  as a whole has  also benefited from the March Madness boost. “There’re have been little gains across the board in every area,” says Hall.  

There was a 22-per-cent rise in attendance at the Just for Juniors event [for high school juniors] in April 2018 – just a few weeks after March Madness – and the Retriever Visit Day later that year had a 27-per-cent year-on-year spike in visitors.  

Hall said of the Just for Juniors event: “I think they had 450 kids sign up and they had a little over 200 in walk-ups and this was maybe three weeks after our victory. Once people who weren’t registered started walking in, they were asked why they were here and many said, ‘What you guys did, you made history. UMBC had been on our list and we had been considering it’.”  

Overall, first-year undergraduate enrolment increased four per cent from autumn 2017 to 2018. Meanwhile, the university used March Madness images and messages to help promote a special scholarship for alumni returning to UMBC to complete master’s degrees and graduate certificates. It resulted in a 50-per-cent increase in autumn 2018 enrolments and a 40-per-cent increase in spring 2019 enrolments among the segment.   

Hall adds: “The heart of the university is the academic enterprise, that’s where all the good teaching and learning and educating future leaders of society resides. What successful athletics, especially men’s basketball, can do – because of the insatiable appetite that popular culture has on college basketball and the NCAA tournament – is if you have success, it can provide a lens into the heart of your university that might be bigger than any other lens can be.   

The UMBC Retrievers cheerleaders and band during the first round of the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament against the Virginia Cavaliers (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

“I think what our success with men’s basketball last year  did was  shine a greater spotlight on the tremendous academic institution that UMBC is. We’re heavily STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) focused. We compete with schools like Carnegie Mellon, Cal Poly, MIT and Case Western Reserve. What many schools have on us is 150 to 200 years…we’re 52 years old as an institution but we are thought of academically in the same breath.  

“What those other schools have on us from a branding perspective is all those years of history and so the platform that the success in making history as a ’16 over 1′ did was, yes, it showed that we’re doing really good things in our academic department but more importantly it shined a really bright light and a bigger lens on how spectacular of an institution UMBC is.”  

Fundraising from donors is also up. On February 28, the university hosted its second annual UMBC Giving Day and received gifts from 1,554 donors in 24 hours, surpassing its goal of 1,000 donors.  

Moving forward, Hall says UMBC needs to continue to capitalize on the Retrievers’ March Madness success but in such  a  way that speaks to a wider narrative to maintain relevance. “It’s something we’re building on but we’re really careful to say, we don’t want to be Milli Vanilli, we don’t want to be a one-hit wonder,” he says.   

“You want to be careful that you don’t get so far out of it that people are like, ‘enough already, act like you’ve been here before’. How do you weave, ‘we made history, we were [America East Conference] champions’ and have that interwoven through all the various threads at the university of how you communicate your brand?’   

“That’s what we’re really focused on: the notion that doing something extraordinary is possible at UMBC – and we’ve proven it.”  

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