Today’s guest post is by Peppercommer, and proud SFA alum, Nicole Newby (pictured bottom left.)
I’ve never been so downtrodden after a sporting event than when the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks lost by one point to the Fighting Irish with 1.5 seconds to go in the game that would have advanced them to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time. (And that’s saying something. I experience a lot of heartbreak as a Cowboys fan.)
However, despite the team’s loss on the court, the university won the public relations jackpot. They were the Cinderella team that everyone was rooting for, even if they had to leave the ball a little early. This catapulted the university into the national spotlight that was invaluable for SFA’s overall image and reputation.
- Commentators finally started correctly referring to the school as Stephen F. Austin or SFA, instead of S.F. Austin—a huge branding victory.
- The Lumberjacks ranked third out of 64 teams for the most viewed social media platformsand number one in most engagement on Facebook, according to SFA professor Jason Reese. He said that after their win against WVU, their Facebook page gained 6,000 likes. This is pretty significant considering the sizes of the universities involved. SFA enrolls about 12,000 students, which is small in comparison to other March Madness players– UNC has about 30,000 students, Temple has over 37,000, and Michigan has over 43,000.
- Nearly every major outlet covering March Madness wrote about them, including ESPN, USA Today, CBS Sports, New York Post, Elite Daily, and many more.
- Shaquille O’Neill tweeted about SFA’s star player, Thomas Walkup. USA Today also wrote a piece about him and his Lumberjack-esque beard, another great branding moment on the court. He also appeared on Sirius XM’s College Sports Nation after the Notre Dame loss.
- People who saw me wearing my “Kickin’ Axe” t-shirt started asking me details about the school, including where it was located and what it was like. The SFA pride that came through on my Facebook newsfeed was also unlike anything I had ever seen, even when I was a current student there.
- And then there was the Stone Cold Steve Austin association and promoting the Lumberjack’s resiliency.
No marketing budget could have paid for this kind of exposure, but SFA is just one example of the universities that have benefitted from March Madness off the court. The IBTimes reported that Florida Gulf Coast University’s Cinderella story in 2013 inspired a 39 percent jump in applications the
following year, and George Mason University experienced a 54 percent spike after the 2006 NCAA tournament, along with a 52 percent increase on their alumni registry. Virginia Commonwealth University produced its highest royalty total in its history after the team made it to the Final Four.
Furthermore, investing in athletic programs that make it to the national spotlight has directly impacted university applications. A recent study from Douglas J. Chung found that when a college athletic team goes from good to great, undergraduate applications increase dramatically. However, it is up to the schools’ marketing teams to leverage that initial attention into a long-term branding opportunity.
Dallas Law said it best in his piece in Elite Daily: “In less than 48 hours, between Friday’s tip-off and Sunday’s, the majority of the nation had gone from thinking SFA was an airport to rooting for the Jacks…The unfamiliarity of SFA and Nacogdoches has certainly changed. Lumberjacks aresome of the strongest, friendliest, smartest, most determined and most respectful individuals…The SFA men’s basketball team showed the entire nation just that.”