Wichita State’s Final Four exposure extends beyond basketball court

Wichita State University couldn’t buy the national exposure it’s getting from the Shockers’ stunning run to the Final Four in Atlanta.

If such positive attention had a price, it would cost millions of dollars, experts say.

Turn on any news or sports channel and WSU is mentioned.

The team is on a regional cover of Sports Illustrated this week.

WSU’s marketing office is fielding nonstop media calls from across the country.

The number of people visiting the university’s website is soaring.

“We’re being looked at from all over the world right now,” said Barth Hague, WSU associate vice president for university relations.

“It’s a heady time for us right now,” he said. “The idea here is to make sure that we’re taking advantage of this opportunity as people are watching us, that we can make sure that the Wichita State University message gets out there.”

The national spotlight will have a positive impact on the university and also on Wichita, said Eric Sickler, vice president for client services at Stamats, an Iowa-based firm that specializes in marketing for higher education.

“You’re a basketball powerhouse, and the shelf life of that rousing cheer can last a very long time,” Sickler said.

It’s likely WSU will experience a spike in applications from prospective students, increased donations from alumni and higher sales of licensed products. Even prospective employees will take note, he said.

“Everyone is looking for shorthand to judge the value or worth or quality of a college or university,” he said. “We as humans are remarkably and easily swayed. ... The exposure that the university is getting right now is among the best in demonstrating that it has its act together.”

It’s positive attention without scandal or negative connotations, Sickler said.

Robert Baker, director of sports management for George Mason University, said George Mason’s appearance in the Final Four in 2006 had some lasting effects on the school.

Baker conducted a study to determine how much the media exposure the school received during the Final Four was worth.

His conclusion: $677 million.

And that was being conservative, Baker said.

At the time, inquiries from prospective students and website page views increased. So did graduate-level applications.

Sales of licensed products spiked. A fundraising capital campaign exceeded its goals by about 30 percent.

George Mason expanded its admissions department to handle the jump in inquiries.

It took effective management and leadership to handle the attention and all the follow-up.

“It was a managed and well-led approach,” he said.

George Mason’s then-basketball coach, Jim Larranaga, never turned down an interview, Baker said.

“He spoke about the university as much as he spoke about basketball,” he said.

The university president was accessible.

“We did not hesitate to tell our story,” Baker said. “That’s a lesson learned.”

Baker’s advice to WSU is to be agile and available for the inquiries and interest.

“People want to know more,” he said.

Alumni and current students gain a renewed enthusiasm. Inquiries from prospective students and student athletes rise. Strategically managing those things so the school can sustain the boost long term is important, Baker said.

Butler University, Virginia Commonwealth, Florida Gulf Coast and other schools have found themselves in similar circumstances.

“There’s a common interest among those institutions on how do we sustain this, how do we manage it; what are we in for,” Baker said.

There is an opportunity for institutions to learn from one another, he said.

George Mason was already on an upward trajectory when it reached the Final Four, Baker said.

All the attention accelerated those plans.

“I think once people looked in the door, I think people felt there was a lot of good things going on here,” Baker said.

Now five years later, George Mason has been able to “keep our place on the map, so to speak,” Baker said.

So far, WSU has not received a big upturn in applications from prospective students, but Hague is expecting it.

After WSU got into the Sweet Sixteen in 2006, the number of applications had a “big uptick.”

Ultimately, however, “we really didn’t see that result in a significant number of new students,” Hague said.

WSU wants to make sure that the goodwill people feel now about the basketball program extends beyond the court to the university, he said.

“We want to make sure people have the opportunity to be exposed to messages that talk about our world-class research here as well as our world-class academics,” Hague said.

The attention will draw notice to the city, Sickler said.

“You can’t say Wichita State without saying Wichita,” he said. “And you can’t say Wichita without thinking, ‘Where the heck is that?’ The community is very fortunate that the school’s not named Acme University.”

The attention reminds people that WSU is a “great university and a great community turning out students who represent us proudly,” Sickler said. “It’s a win all around.”

Wichita’s economic development groups and chamber of commerce should leverage the attention, Sickler said.

“This is evidence that the basketball program at Wichita State University is world class,” he said. “And any collection of world class citations that an economic development group can put together on a one-page sell sheet just makes the reader go, ‘Wow. Wow. Wow. That’s all happening in this town.’ ”

They should use it to exemplify the good things happening in the city, he said.

“If I had anything to do with economic development or the chamber of commerce, I would leverage this to the hilt – unabashedly and unapologetically,” Sickler said.

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