A Final Four appearance often brings an influx of student applications

lblackford@herald-leader.comMarch 26, 2012 

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In 2006, George Mason University was known as a commuter school outside the nation's capital and not much else. Then the men's basketball team made it to the NCAA Final Four.

Unique visitors to their Web site shot up 700 percent, and by fall, there was a 40 percent jump in out-of-state applications.

An appearance in the Final Four routinely brings enough attention to a school that people look beyond basketball to academics, particularly for underdog teams, experts say. However, it's harder to measure how much benefit basketball powerhouses, such as the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville, get from a date at the Big Dance.

"Mason was already on an upward trajectory, but not a lot of people were aware of it," said Robert Baker, director of George Mason's Center for Sports Management, who studied the Final Four effect. "That exposure allowed a lot of people who didn't know about George Mason to see the front porch, but then they got interested in looking through the front door."

(Baker said bad publicity about sports, such as NCAA investigations, can be just as prominent as a Final Four appearance.)

Butler University, another basketball underdog, has reported that its applications went up 40 percent after an appearance in the Final Four.

At UK, there are no hard numbers about how a Final Four appearance affects admissions, but Don Witt, UK's director of admissions, said a winning basketball season always makes his job easier.

This year, UK received a record number of applications, and he said it's partly because of basketball.

"We just wrapped up all of our scholarship interviews; all these incredible students all talked about really loving the athletic tradition at UK and the sense of community it brings," Witt said. "Everyone wants to be part of a winning tradition — they want the complete package with academics and athletics."

Witt's counterpart at U of L, Jenny Sawyer, tells the same story.

"It helps because students love to be a part of something that is relevant on the national scene," she said. "The deeper you go in the tournament, you may hear that name more often on the national level. Do I have any hard data to support that? No. But I think like anyone, people like to be a part of something that's winning, an institution that is successful, whether in basketball or medical research."

Meanwhile, both schools will get a big payout from the NCAA. Kentucky's payment, which must filter through the SEC, will be in the millions of dollars, UK spokesman Jay Blanton said.

George Mason's Baker said other benefits from a Final Four appearance often come in surprising, non-tangible ways.

For example, George Mason recently entered into a partnership with the U.S. State Department to create a sports leadership academy for foreign coaches. In addition, the number of alumni who registered online with the school went up 52 percent shortly after the Final Four.

"But it's also important that universities have a good story to tell," Baker said.

UK President Eli Capilouto and U of L President James Ramsey will be doing their best to tell those stories. At a joint news conference Monday in Frankfort, they boasted of the many research partnerships between the two schools.

"All of us in Kentucky have to do a better job of educating public policy makers on the importance of education and the importance of higher education for the future of our state," Ramsey said. "We do see athletics as a vehicle to get those messages out."

Ramsey often talks about U of L's medical research efforts. Capilouto has emphasized new attention to undergraduate education.

"His (Capilouto's) message is very much about enhancing undergraduate education, and improving facilities to go along with it," Blanton said. "We've tried to leverage athletics' success to highlight academics."

Beshear later joined the press conference. He touted the matchup as an economic boon to the state, saying that it was generating more interest in Kentucky. The last time two teams from the same state faced each other in the Final Four was in 1962 when the University of Cincinnati played Ohio State University.

"This is a great opportunity for the commonwealth," Beshear said. "Think of the attention that this is bringing to the Commonwealth of Kentucky. It's amazing all of the news media that's zeroed in on both of these schools."

Gil Lawson, spokesman for the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, said officials are "looking at ways to promote Kentucky" during the Final Four, but he had no specifics.

Beth Musgrave contributed to this article. Linda Blckford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford.

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