As both the Baylor men's and women's basketball teams made deep runs in this year's NCAA tournament, March Madness infected not only the Waco campus but most of the university's 140,000 living alumni.
Such excitement can be temporal, but the effects of the teams' successes--not only for Baylor athletics, but for the university as a whole--are lasting, having helped unite the Baylor family and promote the university in ways money can't buy.
First, there's the exposure the Baylor name received.
For the men's Elite Eight matchup versus Duke, 13.8 million people around the world tuned in on a Sunday afternoon; for reference, that's more fans than watched this year's Daytona 500 or the Orange Bowl. The Lady Bears' Final Four showdown with eventual national champion Connecticut a week later drew 2 million viewers.
"Having your name, your brand, and stories about the character and quality of your institution and student-athletes in front of those numbers of people is incredibly significant," says John Barry, Baylor's vice president for marketing and communications.
To put this sort of exposure in context, consider that a one-minute commercial during the men's Elite Eight game sold for $2.8 million; that same slot for the women's Final Four game went for $400,000.
"If we combined all our resources, we would not have been able to purchase a 60-second spot in both games," Barry says. "Our entire ad budget for a year wouldn't come close to sustaining one 60-second spot on those two broadcasts."
Instead, Baylor got the equivalent of a 90-minute commercial each time the Bears and Lady Bears took the court. Director of Athletics Ian McCaw pointed to a study conducted by Joyce Julius and Associates in 2002-03 that estimates the basketball teams' postseason runs to have produced an estimated $60 million to $80 million worth of marketing value to the university.
"And that's a very conservative estimate," he explains. "You can't buy two hours on CBS. You can't buy two hours on ESPN. You can't buy the front page of the Houston Chronicle above the fold two days in a row. But that's the level of coverage we received."
A natural result of that additional exposure is an increased level of interest in the university among high school students.
"Competitive, winning athletic teams draw attention to a university from families when they are beginning the college search," says Barry. "We know that academically talented students don't choose to go to a college or university solely because they field high-quality teams, but successful athletics can open the door for such a student to learn about the quality of our academic programs and the commitment we have to quality residential living-learning programs. Ultimately, families put all those things into the mix to determine the best fit for them, and winning athletic programs can be very persuasive."
It's too early for Baylor to calculate the impact this year's teams will have on freshman enrollment in the fall. But examples from other universities indicate such gains will almost certainly occur down the road.
At George Mason University--which was the Cinderella of the 2006 NCAA Final Four--assistant professor of sports management Bob Baker ran the numbers the following school year. In 2007-08, application inquiries increased 350 percent and freshman applications rose 22 percent.
"Mason's 2006 Final Four run made the team an instant fan favorite and the university a household name," Baker says in his report.
At Butler University, which has sent its men's basketball team to three consecutive NCAA tournaments and played against Duke in the national championship game this year, the number of prospective students who requested information from the school recently increased 67 percent from the same time last year, said Courtney Tuell, the school's director of public relations. The number of transfer student applications was up 61 percent.
In 2003, after Butler reached the Sweet 16 of the men's NCAA tournament for the first time, freshman applications rose nearly 22 percent and enrollment went up nearly 20 percent as well.
"[The basketball success] is an icebreaker when you're meeting families," explains Jennifer Carron, Baylor's assistant vice president of admission services. "It creates a buzz, for sure."
Then there's the clear rise in Baylor pride among both alumni and students that results from catching a case of March Madness.
As the Baylor women's program has reached elite status during head coach Kim Mulkey's 10 years in Waco, attendance at the Ferrell Center has become among the best in the country. The Lady Bears ranked eighth nationally in attendance in 2009-10, setting a program record with 122,550 fans over 17 home games.
The Baylor men's bandwagon picked up steam as the team rolled through the postseason. After winning first- and second-round games in New Orleans, head coach Scott Drew's men played their Sweet 16 and Elite Eight match-ups in nearby Houston. More than 47,000 fans packed Reliant Stadium to see Baylor play Duke, one of the largest crowds ever to see an NCAA regional game -- and one wearing predominantly green and gold.
"I would say that 40,000 of those were Baylor fans," says Wesley Dunlap, a Baylor senior (since graduated) who attended the Houston regional as president of the Bear Pit, a student group that supports Baylor men's basketball. "People who hadn't been to a Baylor sporting event in ages were there to see that game. It was intense, to say the least."
The nine NCAA tournament games played by the Baylor men and women together drew over 155,000 fans, including Baylor President Ken Starr and former U.S. President George H. W. Bush (seen above), but those were far from the only fans gathering to watch Baylor basketball.
Baylor fans all over the country who were unable to attend the games in person turned out for watch parties arranged by the Baylor Sports Network. Over the course of the basketball season, the network sponsored 35 events, with the majority of those occurring in March during the teams' play in the NCAA tournament, says Doug Fertsch, the network's director.
As the teams continued to have success late in the season, the watch parties "just grew in numbers and strength all the way through," says Fertsch, whose staff assisted alumni volunteers in organizing parties in cities such as Denver, New York City, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, Portland, St. Louis and San Diego.
Hungry for information on their teams and other Bear fans to celebrate with, the Baylor family also took to the Internet, as both BaylorBears.com and the university's official Facebook page saw enormous spikes in traffic.
The official athletic website, BaylorBears.com welcomed a then-record 185,000-plus unique visitors in March 2009, as the men went to the NIT finals and the women the NCAA Sweet 16. Fast forward to March 2010, and that mark was shattered; this year's numbers more than doubled the previous year's totals.
Facebook, too, was swamped by the Baylor family. Randy Woodruff, Baylor's assistant vice president for video and electronic communications, attended the games in Houston and updated the Baylor Facebook page from his phone after each contest.
"We would have several hundred responses before I could get out of the arena," he says. "You could just feel it in the arena, on Facebook, how fired up people were."
Over and over, the comments from fans showcased the pride they felt at seeing the basketball teams' successes. "Great job guys. You made all of us very proud to be Baylor Bears!" "Congratulations Lady Bears is right!!! Y'all did awesome and we couldn't be more proud!!!!" "So proud of the Bears and can't wait to see what's in store next season! Sic 'em!" Hundreds of such remarks flowed in during the NCAA tournament. In fact, Woodruff said the Facebook site drew its highest number of visitors ever just after the Baylor men's team lost to Duke.
"We hit the zenith, the highest point we've ever seen," he says. "When they lost that last game, there was an outpouring of affection, words of appreciation, that drove in a lot of traffic. At first, it was all about winning, but then it was, 'Thank you, good job, we appreciate it.'"
All that excitement is already translating into additional financial support, both for Baylor athletics and for the university as a whole.
The Baylor Bear Foundation, the athletic department's primary fundraising organization, immediately saw an "uptick" in members raising their annual donations in anticipation of gaining better seats at future basketball games, according to Dennis Prescott, vice president of university development.
For example, members who were already at the $2,500-a-year level are upgrading to the $7,500 level, ensuring themselves of seats lower in the arena or nearer to mid-court. Prescott also says the Bear Foundation is getting "more than a normal amount of new memberships. There's a lot of excitement and pent-up demand, wanting to support Baylor."
The games in Houston were "a good opportunity to fellowship around a high-energy Baylor event," Prescott says. Incoming Baylor President Ken Starr gathered with fans during the men's game at Reliant Stadium in Houston; one of those fans has already since given a "significant" gift to one of the university's academic areas--a big step, Prescott says, because it had been quite a while since the person had made a donation to Baylor.
"Our alumni are definitely more enthusiastic about Baylor this spring, and the basketball teams' successes are a large part of that," Prescott says.
One of the first beneficiaries of the men's and women's teams' success will be the teams' home, the Ferrell Center, as a new center-hung video board is in the works, hopefully in time for the 2010-11 season.
"We were able to put together a group of people who were very, very interested in supporting both Coach Drew and Coach Mulkey," says Rick Darnell, Baylor's executive director of athletic fundraising. "They know the value of the Baylor brand and how important success is to Baylor. They say, 'What can we do to help?'"
Prescott says his office is anticipating additional significant gifts, and he hopes to have the board paid for and installed over the summer and operable by next basketball season.
With both the Bears and Lady Bears likely to be highly ranked again entering next season, alumni and fans may get used to seeing Baylor's name in the national spotlight more consistently. Both the women's and men's recruiting classes for 2010 rank among the best in the nation. The two programs are poised to draw the Baylor nation into yet another exciting season this fall--along with continued positive results for the entire university.