Along the way to Atlanta, Gregg Marshall became more than a basketball coach, taking on the role as Wichita’s ambassador and Wichita State’s dean of advancement.
In the NCAA news conferences, in the hallways, on the radio, he talked about the city and the university, dropping mentions of Pizza Hut, the engineering program, Koch Industries and aviation. University president John Bardo tagged along from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles to Atlanta, enjoying the basketball, high-fiving students and calculating the boost to his plans to shape the school.
Bardo, who became president in July 2012, wants to increase enrollment, attract better students, build dorms and create jobs. The Final Four doesn’t make those things possible — but it can help them become reality.
“I knew every step we took was better for us, and then if we got to the Final Four that it would have real implications for us,” Bardo said. “We were going to move down some of these roads anyway. It just makes it a lot easier because I don’t have to tell people who were are.”
Marshall and his basketball team blasted that message to many sports fans last spring. So much the better that Marshall appears to understand there is a school and city outside his gym.
“When I heard that sound bite, I could have bought him a beer,” said Bobby Gandu, WSU’s director of admissions. “I was just thrilled. He believes in Wichita just as much as the rest of us do.”
During budget talks in Topeka, legislators heard Marshall’s message about Wichita and the university. Andy Schlapp, WSU’s executive director of governmental relations, handed out copies of Marshall’s quotes and played the sound clip for politicians. He believes those words provide an example of how WSU and the city are connected in ways many colleges and towns are not.
“There were a lot of questions because of the economy’s slow rebound, of what’s important to fund and what’s not important to fund,” Schlapp said. “We continue to talk about the programs we provide at Wichita State and how it impacts our local economy in Kansas. I don’t think most legislators are used to colleges doing that and how important those bonds are. To have our basketball coach talking about the major industries in Wichita and how important it is to his program helps us say, ‘We’re not just making this up. These are really important — the industry and the jobs in this community are important to the university.’”
Marshall, Bardo said, didn’t need any prompting to sell WSU.
“Gregg has a great asset in my mind, aside from being able to coach,” Bardo said. “He understands where he is and how to contextualize what he’s doing. To be able to talk about Wichita with affection, which I think is real, and then to have enough detail, I thought was really icing on the cake that we had no right to expect.”
WSU is trying to put a price tag on all the attention it received — and continues to receive. WSU’s sport management department is compiling the exposure data — TV, radio, Internet, print, social media — and assigning a value. It is also adding financial gifts, merchandise and enrollment and that part of project will take years. Sport management instructor Mike Ross is leading the project and he expects the media evaluation to be finished in the spring.
How much money is a retweet worth? Ross wants to know.
While WSU’s study is incomplete, Ross knows the exposure given the university during the NCAA Tournament is worth many millions. George Mason, which played in the 2006 Final Four, estimated it received $550 million worth of exposure through TV time and article in newspapers and magazines, and on websites.
“How much is the front page of USA Today really worth?” Ross said. “You can’t buy it. The amount of people who have the opportunity to watch us in game, the amount of exposure there is significant. That’s exposure that we can’t generate by ourselves. We’re never going to have the money to pay for an advertisement on prime-time national TV.”
When Bob Baker, director of George Mason’s center for sports management, looks around the Fairfax, Va., campus, he sees many changes prompted by 2006. The Patriots defeated Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut before losing to Florida in the national semifinal in Indianapolis.
Mason, then a member of the Colonial Athletic Association, moved to the stronger Atlantic 10 Conference in July. The athletic department and basketball program added employees. Season tickets and television exposure rose. Even the pep band upgraded.
Athletic department fundraising grew 52 percent and GoMason.com page views grew 503 percent. Outside athletics, enrollment grew from 31,000 to 34,000 currently and a $100 million capital campaign raised $132 million.
“The feeling that the university was doing good things and on an upward trajectory, and the Final Four visibility beyond Virginia, speeded up what was happening,” Baker said. “I’d have to say there are some definite lasting impacts. That trajectory is continuing.”
Bardo is not sold on the famed “Flutie Factor,” the name given an enrollment bump after athletic success. That phenomenon is named after former Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie, but Bardo said it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.
“It isn’t real,” Bardo said. “People will look to the one school where it happened and say, ‘See, it does happen.’ Usually it’s something else that drove it.”
Bardo does believe the exposure from the Final Four can potentially be a big help to his goals. For prospective students, he expects Wichita State will move into the “consideration sets” of more students, especially those outside of Kansas.
“We will be talked about on national television and in the national press for years to come, as they’re still talking about Virginia Commonwealth and George Mason,” he said. “At a time when we’re re-doing how we recruit students, it gives us name recognition at a level we would not have had without it.”
Upon acceptance to WSU, each student receives a video of Shocker basketball highlights via e-mail, spotlighting the atmosphere in Koch Arena and the noise and color of the student section. The video reminds them free tickets are available to students.
For Gandu, basketball success provides an easy avenue to get in the game with potential students. In previous years, he sent his staff to around six out-of-state college fairs. This year, he plans on WSU attending 18, adding stops in places such as Denver, Milwaukee, and Long Island, N.Y.
“Our window just got a lot bigger,” Gandu said. “Dr. Bardo is really interested in growing enrollment. One way we can help to grow enrollment is looking out of state.”
WSU’s fall enrollment dropped by 348 students to 14,550. Help from the Final Four is more likely to be seen next fall. Gandu said the university is expecting an increase, although he declined to be specific. In addition to the Final Four, he expects a new dorm, the renovated student center and honors college to help enrollment.
Those plans are in motion with or without the basketball events of last spring. But for Bardo, those three weekends offer an opportunity to surpass previous goals.
“It’s that thing which I could not have bought,” he said. “That makes a lot of the other things we’re trying to do more viable simply because I don’t have to explain who we are and where we are.”