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A funny thing happened on George Mason’s way to Final Four

A funny thing happened on George Mason’s way to Final Four

ROBERT BAKER

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Since its stunning Final Four run in 2006, the March Madness question everyone asks is, “Who will be this year’s George Mason?” Another NCAA tournament bid this year gave the Patriots an opportunity to be “this year’s George Mason” and once again reap the benefits of March Madness. And the impact of a run like that of 2006 can be staggering for a midmajor program, as well as for the institution itself.

Northern Virginia’s George Mason University, with 31,000 students, is a state-supported research university founded in 1957. Mason’s intercollegiate athletics department sponsors 20 sports, 10 each for women and men. Since its inception in 1966, Mason’s basketball success has evolved, with Colonial Athletic Association championships in 1989, 1999 and 2001. NIT appearances came in 1986, 2002 and 2004, and NCAA appearances in 1989, 1999, 2001 and 2006.

Before 2006, the Patriots had never won an NCAA tournament game.

In previous NCAA tournaments, Gonzaga University estimated the value of its 1999 Elite Eight run at $37.8 million, while witnessing increased Web hits, enrollment and donations (Frye, Bozman & Stotlar, 2003). The University of Vermont also experienced effects on admissions after its Sweet 16 performance in 2005. How do these effects compare with George Mason’s Final Four appearance?

I examined the economic and social impacts of George Mason’s Final Four appearance throughout the athletic unit and the university. In addition to the financial effects of the extensive media exposure, the effects on admissions, attendance, Internet hits and personnel, among others, were tracked. Additionally, institutional stakeholders were interviewed. Results revealed the importance of the Final Four berth throughout the institution.

Financial

Financial effects include the distribution of Mason’s share of the NCAA’s $6.2 billion CBS television contract. That equates to $1.8 million over six years for Mason, with the remainder of the $6 million payout split among the other CAA teams. Having never had an at-large invitation, the CAA again earned two NCAA bids in 2007, along with two NIT invitations.

The athletic department also registered CAA record-setting attendance for home games in 2007 and 2008. Season-ticket sales doubled from 2005-06 to 2006-07. An external advertising agency was hired, and nearly every basketball game is now televised. Mason basketball camps doubled in attendance. GoMason.com page views increased 503 percent, while unique viewers increased 702 percent in March 2006. Patriot Club fundraising increased by 52 percent over the previous year, and has continued to climb. Mason’s proceeds from NCAA licensing increased by $100,000 in 2006. Increased revenue resulted in promotions and new positions, both within and outside the athletic department.

The university saw changes in campus culture and finances. Mason merchandise led bookstore sales to more than $800,000 in March 2006 alone, while 2004-05 totaled $625,000. A revenue increase of 20 percent to $634 million was already in place; however, fundraising rose from $19.6 million to $23.5 million, and the capital campaign goal was exceeded by 32 percent, to $132 million.

Admissions

Freshmen applications increased 10 percent, with 17 percent from out of state, in 2006-07. However, the more telling impact of 2007-08 revealed another similar increase, with a 350 percent increase in inquiries, 150 percent increase in Web hits, and 40 percent increase in out-of-state applications.

The incoming students’ average GPA rose from 3.4 to 3.51 and SAT scores from 1100 to 1135. Retention rates increased to 83.5 percent.

The number of active alumni increased 25 percent to 107,000, with online alumni registration rising 52 percent.

Media exposure

The value of media exposure was determined for both print and broadcast media using the average-advertising-cost-per-exposure method to calculate the estimates. Given the 1,700 Associated Press print outlets, 5,000 AP broadcast outlets, countless Internet outlets, and the limited scope of this examination, any exposure value presented here is conservative.Total media exposure was valued at $162,146,159, excluding actual game exposure and Internet exposure. That included print media (based on a total sample of 894 articles from March through August 2006) and televised exposure in the D.C. regional market, but no other regional television and no radio.

When including Internet valuation and game coverage (Mason garnered nearly 23 hours of overall national television broadcast exposure), exposure value was conservatively estimated at $677,474,659.

Intangibles

Institutional stakeholders agreed that, as a result of the Final Four, school spirit soared. Mason’s agility in response to the newfound attention reflected a long-standing strength of the university. People contributed beyond their defined roles in an environment where no one said, “It’s not my job.”

Coach Jim Larranaga sent a consistent message beyond basketball that George Mason was an outstanding university. Mason represented what people want college sports to be. All of Mason basketball’s seniors graduated in 2006, handling themselves much like the rest of the student body, with enthusiasm and dignity.

Were all of these occurrences direct results of the Final Four? It’s difficult to determine, yet unlikely. General perceptions suggest that good things were already happening at Mason, with the trajectory clearly established; thus, the Final Four shed light on it and allowed progress on the established course to proceed at a faster pace.

What does it mean? If properly managed, this type of athletic success can translate into much more for an institution.

Robert Baker (rbaker2@gmu.edu) is the director of the Center for Sport Management at George Mason University.

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