Sometime in the next few weeks, the college sports fan will fully turn his focus from football to hoops, with the specter of March Madness growing with the length of the days from the end of December through the beginning of the expanded tournament now brought to us by CBS, TNT, TBS and truTV
With the NCAA tournament always comes the rise of the Mid-Major school, those from the smaller, non-BCS conferences whose post season runs give us the biggest thrills year in and year out. Most casual sports fan not living in a particular geographic area would not know the names of Valparaiso, Siena, Gonzaga, St. Joe's, George Mason or Butler without the expansion of the tournament and those schools recent successful runs in the field. It is the everyman's dream, the slaying of Goliath, that gives March Madness it's cache and keeps it as arguably the most exciting extended postseason of any sport, professional or college.
However for many schools the burden of sustaining the run is a very difficult task. The level of expectation, the feeling of being the hunted and not the hunter along with all the financial and academic obligations that go with consistent success when competing with large state schools and ever-expanding football-based conferences make the task even more difficult these days. Even Spokane, Washington's Gonzaga Bulldogs have struggled to maintain their extended top 25 run this year, succumbing to a loss of top athletes, high expectations and a killer schedule early on that hopefully will prep them for conference play and another tournament push in the spring.
Last year's darling, the Butler University Bulldogs of Indianapolis, Indiana have been able to use their run properly thus far, using the exposure of success to increase awareness about the University, enrollment applications and television and radio time for this season. It is all good news for a hoops driven private school playing in the Horizon League, always with the shadow of the Big Ten and the NBA Pacers not too far away for the casual fan. The big question is can a school like Butler sustain success, or at the very least use the current success to find ways to grow their impact and footprint not just for hoops but for all students and student-athletes at the school.
One program Butler should look at it George Mason University. The Patriots had a miracle run of their own to the Final Four three years ago, complete with the trappings of increased media and student interest and general awareness growth in the community. However as with the case of most mid majors, especially in a large market like Washington, DC, the run ends and the return to the pack, at least for the casual fan and those looking to spend discretionary income, hits home. However the Patriots, unlike other mid-majors, saw the issues coming and found ways to lead, not follow, in years when success couldn't be measured by men's hoops wins and losses. The result came this fall, when mason decided to forgo a problematic relationship on terrestrial radio and use their core support and brand to go all digital with not just their games, but with activities across the Mason athletic program.
To answer that question, GMU came up with an interesting compromise, one which gave them a consistent voice, more opportunity to have that voice heard, and a unique trail for the college marketplace. The University launched GoMason Mobile, a free smartphone application, created by industry leader XCO SportsLink, to broadcast all Patriots men's basketball games and all women's home basketball games, along with pre-game and post-game shows. Additionally, the app offers exclusive content from Mason Athletics including interactive social media tools, information on all your favorite Mason teams, team information, rosters, live stats, and schedules. It is available for download from the iTunes Store, Android Marketplace, and BlackBerry App World. It is a new compliment to the streaming of the broadcasts online as well as the essential television component which still gets GMU its largest audience.
What the app does is give Mason the ability to speak to a growing audience interested in the games in a format which is becoming more and more consumer friendly, especially for first adopters. It can be promoted across all platforms that touch the fan, and gives the Patriots a little more buzz in the marketplace. If the school did not have ample TV presence would it make less sense? Yes. Going app or stream only for broadcasts is still a major risk in exposure, especially in a casual marketplace. However by communicating properly and well in advance to its constituents, the Patriots have created an interesting balance of test in the marketplace. They are providing a consistent place where fans know they can get games, albeit not on the traditional airwaves. The traditional had abandoned them in the marketplace and at great expense, and it is probably close to reality that if they couldn't be found on a station, the casual fan wasn't listening anyway. Now they have the chance to speak and draw similar numbers consistently and with greatly added content to tell their stories. Is it a perfect situation? No. Is it an intriguing trial balloon that may be copied by others? Yes.
Now we are not saying that some Universities cannot extend the run and the dollars and awareness that came with it. Butler's success was not a fluke, they have had a strong program in a hoops Mecca for years. Gonzaga has proved time and again that concentrated success can continue in a smaller market where competition does not come from large schools and pro sports. However for the most part, the high level of competition and the fickleness of sport plays against the extended run. For schools like George Mason it is much better to look long term and see how to parlay that success into overall growth as opposed to hoping and hanging all hope on just wins and losses. Their model for brand marketing and exposure could actually be the one, if successful, that the next Butler (or even the current one) may look to as a successful one for the school, its athletes and its brand supporters.
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