How much media hype is a March Madness Cinderella race worth to a school like Saint Peter’s?

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(THE CONVERSATION) Few outside of Jersey City had heard of the No. 15 seeded Saint Peter Peacocks before they upset No. 2 seed Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Two days later, Saint Peter’s defeated No. 7 seed Murray State to advance to the Sweet 16 and become the darlings of the men’s college basketball world. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski even suggested the national media attention could be worth tens of millions of dollars to the small New Jersey school.

In 2020, I published a study with economists Trevor Collier, Kurt Rotthoff, and Alaina Baker that explored the value of unexpected NCAA basketball tournaments.

Coach K’s predictions are a bit optimistic. But we’ve been able to show that media earned from a Cinderella race drives registrations, which has a tangible financial benefit.

Basketball fans tend to know one when they see it, but what exactly is a Cinderella team?

Notable examples include the No. 10 seed Davidson, managed by Stephen Curry, making the Elite Eight in 2008; Butler’s run, No. 5, to the national championship game in 2010; and the Florida Gulf Coast No. 15 seed making her way to the Sweet 16 in 2013.

We studied NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament teams from 1985 to 2017. During that time, there were 57 instances of Cinderella runs by 52 different schools.

We defined Cinderella Schools as teams that have won at least two games, excluding playoff games; did not enter as the No. 1 or No. 2 seed; and were nicknamed “Cinderella” or something similar by the media. Our results were consistent even when using slight variations in these criteria.

We found that private schools, such as Saint Peter’s, experience the largest gains, with an average freshman enrollment increase of 4.4% two years after a Cinderella run. Moreover, the quality of students – as measured by SAT scores – does not diminish with this additional enrollment.

National media coverage following the tournament’s unexpected success is generating major spikes in Google search trends by curious viewers, which, of course, includes prospective students. Sudden attention and interest is essentially a form of free publicity.

Using data from Peterson’s Undergraduate Database, we’ve estimated that a 4.4% increase over the typical entering class at a private college is worth approximately US$9 million in additional income from tuition and room and board over a four-year period.

Saint Peter’s, however, has a much smaller entering class than a typical private school – its student body comprises only 2,000 undergraduates. Kurt Rotthoff, one of our study’s co-authors, recently calculated that the team’s current run would be around $3.2 million over four years.

Other studies have also found an increase in applications after the success of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, primarily due to increased media attention.

While there is debate over whether varsity athletics supports the schools’ academic mission, St. Pierre is reveling in the moment. And in addition to the excitement for students, alumni and fans, the university can expect to see returns in the form of increased enrollment over the next two years, thanks to the attention brought to his men’s basketball team.

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