March Madness Cinderella Stories Send Applications Soaring

Big upsets can mean a 10% boost for little  basketball schools.

Tip-off between the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles and the North Carolina Tar Heels.

Photographer: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Joe McIntire spent 11 hours on a bus, traveling more than 800 miles to see his school’s basketball team play in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last March. The 20-year-old sophomore’s beloved Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles lost 83-67 to the North Carolina Tar Heels. Back on the bus he went, for another dozen or so hours. The loss didn’t sting too much, though: McIntire is planning to go back to the tournament this year.

“Me and my friends found out about FGCU when we were watching March Madness,” he said. The New Jersey native had never heard of the school, which was established in the 1990s, prior to the 2013 National Collegiate Athletic Association Tournament. That was the year the Eagles, seeded 15th out of 16 teams in their region, upset Georgetown 78-68. Then they beat the No. 7 seed, San Diego State, advancing to the Sweet 16, before finally succumbing to No. 3 seed Florida. “I thought they were going to get destroyed in the second round,” McIntire said. “It was just funny how such a small school could go out and beat a 2 seed.” He applied to the college the following year and enrolled in 2015.

After the university’s surprising NCAA performance, Google searches for the school spiked; interest in FGCU was higher than it was for the University of Kentucky during March Madness, despite Kentucky’s traditional dominance of the sport. The school’s website generated more than 100,000 unique visitors, about triple the norm. The following year, applications to Florida Gulf Coast surged 27.5 percent, according to a Bloomberg analysis of Department of Education data.

A number of universities that defeated top-seeded competitors during March Madness have seen a similar application bump. Schools that upset teams seeded at least 10 spots ahead of their own rank experienced a median student application increase of 7 percent, according to a Bloomberg analysis of five years of tournament results and Education Department data for 148 schools.  In 2012, 15th-seeded Lehigh University beat No. 2 seed Duke in the first round. Lehigh’s application rate jumped 9.2 percent year-over-year, modest compared with that of FGCU, but considerably higher than the average 4 percent increase for all schools that participated in the NCAA Tournament from 2010 to 2014.

   

“Our applicant pool had been growing for the years leading up to this win, but I believe the immediate impact surfaced in the number of visitors that set foot on campus following the victory,” said Bruce Bunnick, interim vice provost of admissions at Lehigh. “In all, we are still feeling the positive effects of this huge win.”

Even if a school didn’t beat higher-ranked competition, they could still be rewarded with applicants if they lasted longer than expected in the tournament. Wichita State University saw a 29 percent application increase after its aptly nicknamed Shockers made it to the Final Four as a No. 9 seed in 2013. The year earlier they’d failed to make it past the first round. Other schools that also advanced four rounds further in the tournament than they had in the previous year saw a median applicant increase of 10 percent.

In the five years’ worth of data reviewed by Bloomberg, only one school has been able to both go deep into the tournament and upset top seeds: Virginia Commonwealth University. In the 2011 tournament, the school’s Rams became the third team in history to reach the Final Four as a double-digit seed, even playing and winning an extra game just to reach the field of 64.

The impact on the school’s public profile was immediate. According to the university, mentions of VCU in local and national media skyrocketed during the three weeks of the Rams’ tournament run; its Twitter followers and Facebook impressions soared; and visits to the school’s home page more than doubled. After VCU’s tournament run, freshman applications went up slightly more than 10 percent from the previous year.

Schools also find that the tournament draws attention from areas of the country where they wouldn’t normally get noticed. On the day Lehigh upset Duke, views of its website coming from the school’s home state of Pennsylvania were up 84 percent from the same day a week earlier, but page views from North Carolina and Texas were up 7,800 percent and 2,400 percent, respectively.

Of course, March Madness success is also good for a school’s bottom line. Sales of Florida Gulf Coast apparel jumped more than 2,000 percent, and royalties from licensed sales nearly quadrupled in 2013. Lehigh saw a spike in giving to the university that year, according to Joe Gnall, the school’s director of development for athletics. “We even got gifts from Kentucky and UNC alumni as thank-you’s for beating Duke,” he said. 

Plenty of non-sports factors can also affect applications, of course, such as advertising, the launch of a new program, or an economic downturn.

Athletics are on the mind of some college applicants, but not most, said Christine Chu, a college applications counselor at New York-based Ivy Wise. About a third of the students she advises reference athletics when discussing their college goals with her. “It’s not framed as, ‘I want to go to a basketball school,’” she said. “But a great college experience means going to a school with strong school spirit. That’s motivated a lot by a great sports team.”

The application bump appears more pronounced among schools with unexpected tournament success. The University of Kentucky, whose basketball team has won more NCAA Tournament games than any school in history, doesn’t see major applicant increases or decreases based on how far they advance in the tournament.

“There is no question that for so many people, athletics is the front porch of the university,” said Kentucky spokesman Jay Blanton. “We have a national brand presence through athletics, particularly our basketball program. And that creates awareness while also generating revenues.” 

On his first tour of the Florida Gulf Coast campus, McIntire was wowed by its shiny new dorms and gleaming academic buildings. He was drawn to FGCU by sports but stayed for the education program, tightknit student body, and South Florida weather. Basketball, though, is still a big part of his college experience. “Athletes are more accessible because we’re a smaller school, so they’re always around campus hyping up stuff,” he said.