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Northwestern Could Cash in on First NCAA Tournament Bid, 'Reawaken' Alumni

Chicago Tribune, March 16, 2017

By Becky Yerak

The first appearance by Northwestern University's men's basketball team in the NCAA Tournament could mean a boost for everything from enrollment applications to sponsorships, sports industry experts say.

All teams — but particularly a new team or a team that has sat out the tournament for a while — stand to benefit.

Besides creating a bigger market for ticket and merchandise sales in future seasons, "simply making the NCAA Tournament for the first time provides a boost to the overall marketing value of Northwestern's athletic program," said Jim Andrews, senior vice president for sponsorship consulting business IEG.

"It's very difficult to quantify the impact, but increased attention from casual fans — and even nonfans — in addition to increased excitement of die-hard fans, alumni, students and staff makes sponsoring the program a more attractive proposition for businesses," he said.

In their first appearance in the tournament's 79-year history, the Wildcats beat Vanderbilt 68-66 Thursday in a thriller to advance to the Round of 32 against top-seeded Gonzaga.

The longer the team stays in the tournament, the more excitement it will generate, Andrews said.

The team's appearance also could mean more invitations to multiteam pre-conference tournaments, stronger alumni financial support and better recruiting prospects, said Michael Neuman, executive vice president for Scout Sports & Entertainment in New York.

"Every top-tier high school basketball player dreams of playing in the NCAA tournament, so inclusion in the NCAA tournament means Northwestern has a better story to tell on the recruiting trail," he said. "A deep run in March further enhances their ability to realize these benefits, but the foundation is firmly established" even if the team exits early.

The biggest single benefit from this year's team could be "the awakening of an affluent, highly educated fan base that has another reason to reconnect with their alma mater and contribute to an academic institution that hasn't had a lot to cheer about for a long time," Neuman said.

Ellen Zavian, who teaches sports law at George Washington University and who has been a sports agent, said enrollment applications at Northwestern could go up because of greater name awareness.

"Win or lose, Northwestern will gain additional media exposure and have increased name recognition, and so applicants will recall the name of Northwestern above another school, perhaps," she said.

Some call it the "Flutie effect."

In a 1984 game against the University of Miami, Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie threw a last-second Hail Mary pass that was caught for a game-winning touchdown. Applications shot up 30 percent, according to a Harvard Business School article from 2013 that studied how sports success affected college marketing. Similarly, Georgetown University applications rose 45 percent between 1983 and 1986 after a surge of basketball success.

Northwestern has even been here before: Its applications rose 21 percent after the football team won a Big 10 championship in 1995, according to the Harvard article.

Increased exposure for the team also will likely mean more sponsorship interest and dollars, particularly for a longtime underdog. George Washington's Zavian compares Northwestern's success to when George Mason reached the Final Four in 2006.

"That has a value to sponsors," she said.

Tom Haidinger, president of sponsorship agency Advantage Marketing, which helps corporate clients with their sports and entertainment strategies, said Northwestern will benefit from its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance, but to varying degrees.

Short-term benefits will include the public-relations value of a "feel good story" and a better basketball recruiting pitch.

Long-term benefits to the on-court success will include a bigger and more devoted fan base, meaning greater consumption of Wildcats media, tickets and merchandise.

That could, in turn, increase corporate America's interest in the team through bigger sponsorships and stepped-up advertising on TV, radio, digital, social media, mobile, print and in-arena signage. Official sponsors can run promotions using official Northwestern marks, logos and special access opportunities as a "proud sponsor" of the team.

"Competitors can't do that," Haidinger said.

More media attention will also make nonfans more interested in the team, particularly feeding "America's fascination with a "Cinderella story" and leading to more streaming, watching and reading of content about the team, Haidinger said.

Chris Smith, a Forbes reporter who has written about the value of college basketball teams, said the real financial boost for schools comes from turning on-court success into new fan interest, which, in turn, generates increased revenues from tickets, merchandise and alumni contributions.

"So making the tournament this year should certainly help in those areas for Northwestern, though it's difficult to predict exactly how significant, or how lasting, the financial impact will be," Smith said. "A deep tournament run would be even better, though that also comes with a bigger upfront cost for things like travel, lodging and coaching staff bonuses." A small school can initially lose money going deep into the tournament, he said.

The real key, he said, is making perennial trips to, and getting deeper into, the tournament.

Louisville, Duke and Kentucky lead all college basketball teams in annual revenues largely because they're constantly in the championship hunt, he said.

"So while this year's tournament appearance has obviously created a lot of interest among Northwestern fans, the truly significant boost will come from regularly returning to the dance in years to come," Smith said.