Sweet 16 gives Wichita State a chance to market itself

03/27/2013 12:01 PM

08/06/2014 12:36 AM

Wichita State is a basketball school playing in a basketball month, one of 16 universities still alive in the men’s NCAA Tournament. Tim Tebow is talking about the Shockers. So are Dick Vitale, Jim Rome and Charles Barkley. President Obama must be, even though the Shockers damaged his bracket predictions with their run to the Sweet 16.

The Shockers are in the spotlight and in Los Angeles for the Sweet 16. The NCAA Tournament is, perhaps, a one-day chance to show off on national television. Making the regional semifinals adds another week of intensified attention for the basketball program and the university.

WSU doesn’t want this to go to waste.

“What we’re becoming right now is a household name nationally,” associate athletic director Darron Boatright said.

The only sure thing is that WSU put itself in position to grab this opportunity. Many teams go to the Sweet 16 and are rarely — or never — heard from again. Kent State made the Sweet 16 in 2002. Washington State in 2008. Cornell in 2010. WSU advanced in 2006 and didn’t return to the NCAA Tournament until 2012.

This ride doesn’t guarantee better recruits start flocking to Koch Arena. Southern Illinois crashed its program after Sweet 16 appearances in 2002 and 2007, in part because it chased hyped recruits who didn’t fit the Saluki way.

No guarantees that scheduling gets easier or Kansas and Kansas State feel compelled to play. Northern Iowa’s 2010 Sweet 16 appearance didn’t protect it from Iowa and Iowa State reducing their games against the Panthers.

No guarantees at all.

“We’ll know what this means in terms of us becoming a Gonzaga in years to come,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “What Gonzaga has done was sustain a remarkable level of excellence. It’s not just one year.”

There is a basketball side to seizing the moment, which Marshall sums as in one word — recruiting.

There is an off-the-court side to it, as well.

On Monday, five members of the marketing department met in assistant athletic director John Brewer’s office to plan this week, a week that includes the Sweet 16, finishing women’s basketball’s NCAA Tournament run and spring sports.

The department will send two marketing people and two media relations people to Los Angeles, plus a photographer. Their job is to pump out pictures and words, largely using Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other social media avenues. In Wichita, people will edit video and photos and help post items. The marketing department uses a blind Facebook page to test its posts before unleashing them on its followers. On Sunday, intern Evie Haertl posted a video and Brewer watched it on the plane ride back from Salt Lake City so he could suggest changes and approve the final version.

Last weekend, he sent a team to Salt Lake City with the men and one to College Station, Texas, with the women’s team.

People going to goshockers.com are greeted by a splash page with a picture of celebrating players, headlined by #Sweet16Bound and Next Stop LA. On the Facebook page, a picture of Tekele Cotton dunking features song lyrics that end “To pass the torch and put on for my town.”

Video of Tebow’s talk to the Shockers on Sunday, captured by Kellen Marshall, son of the coach, became an Internet sensation hours after posted.

“It’s important to offer a window into our basketball team and into our department,” Brewer said. “Hopefully, what they see is exciting and captivating and interesting.”

Coaches give Brewer’s people unlimited access. Jason Malay videos practices, meetings, meals, pre-game talks and post-game celebrations. Brewer said Marshall wants fans who can’t travel to the games to share in the experience.

“I was sure about 10 times I was going to get told, ‘You have to leave the room,’ ” Malay said.

Brewer’s big goal is to sell out Koch Arena for men’s games and to boost attendance at other sports. He isn’t sure how much money the campaigns raise, but he knows people are paying attention. WSU’s licensing company told him royalties on merchandise, usually $125,000-$150,000 each fiscal year, are projected to surpass $200,000 based on sales of the past two weeks.

On Saturday night, a Facebook post with the score of the Gonzaga game and a picture received 155,000 views immediately, now reaching more than 220,000, in addition to 3,343 “Likes” and 1,240 “Shares.” WSU’s athletic department gained 1,700 followers on Facebook since beating Gonzaga, 400 of them within five hours after the victory.

“On an average we were getting 8-9,000 people reached,” Brewer said. “Sometimes we would touch 15,000. You beat the No. 1 team in the country and it’s way up there.”

Marshall is also doing his part by enthusiastically taking on as many media opportunities as possible. Some coaches withdraw at this time and some embrace the hype. Marshall can’t do all requests, but he is putting the Shockers out there on ESPN TV and radio, Rome’s radio show, SiriusXM and other local and national outlets. After Monday’s practice, players Ron Baker, Nick Wiggins, Chadrack Lufile, Cleanthony Early, Jake White and Fred VanVleet did interviews, many with newspapers in their hometowns.

While Marshall and his coaches are preparing for La Salle and Brewer is directing mini-movies, Boatright is working behind the scenes on the future. NCAA Tournament games give him a chance to talk scheduling face to face with administrators from other schools.

He does not expect this month to solve all of WSU’s scheduling worries. He wants to use WSU’s rising profile as much as possible. After 2006, WSU scheduled high-profile road games, such as Syracuse, and gained entry into top tournaments such as the Maui Invitational. It helped the Shockers schedule a three-games series against LSU, one in Wichita.

“It’s still going to be challenging,” Boatright said. “This doesn’t make it easier to get the game in ink. This makes it easier to begin a conversation.”

His biggest hope is that WSU’s success — including the 2011 NIT title and last season’s NCAA appearance — reduce the fear factor for other schools. As WSU improves its reputation and raises awareness, coaches can confidently schedule it without fear of playing a bad RPI game and without fear of fans revolting in case of a defeat.

Gonzaga — there’s that model again — can play a national schedule because of its reputation.

“Your coach doesn’t feel like a bum if you lose, because the country now knows how good a program Gonzaga is, just like they know the same thing about us,” Boatright said. “Part of the fear in scheduling is losing, and if this program can stand on the stage and say, ‘We can play with anybody,’ then the fan base knows and the administrators know it and they’re excited to see Wichita State pop up on the schedule, hopefully.”

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