Basketball hype benefits University, community

Nate Brelsford/The News

Elizabeth Johnson


Nate Brelsford/The News

Some luxuries come at an unaffordable price.

For instance, daily highlights on ESPN, a front-page story in USA Today, interviews with CBS Sports, the New York Times and other national media outlets, have always been out of reach for Murray State.

But when a university’s basketball team tallies the best winning streak in college basketball, things change.

Major media outlets have suddenly flocked toward The Bank, paying staffers to venture deep into western Kentucky to try to reveal the next human interest piece about this year’s team – Isaiah Canaan’s struggle with Hurricane Katrina, Ed Daniel’s ever-changing hairstyle, the success of rookie coach Steve Prohm, leaving big cities for rural living and a shot at athletic fame.

No one in Murray is complaining.

The free publicity of being in the national spotlight is positively affecting the University and the community of Murray and will continue to do so.

“Somebody told me a couple weeks ago, you could write a million dollar check to the school and say, ‘Give us all the advertising you can give us,’ and it wouldn’t probably be able to suffice what’s been going on since basically early December and that’s the positive role athletics can play – it can impact the community, it can impact the student body and it can impact the University,” Coach Steve Prohm said.

Prohm is right. The school can’t put a price tag on it. Yet.

Catherine Sivills, vice president of Communications, said when the NCAA tournament is over, the University will hire an agency to run a report determining the monetary value of publicity this season.

“I feel like I can say just in my head it’s going to be over $10 million dollars worth,” Sivills said.

Jim Carter, vice president of Institutional Advancement, said the University ran a similar report in 2010 ranging between the time that Canaan hit a half-court shot from his knees to the time Murray State lost to Butler in the second round of the NCAA tournament. He said the report valued the publicity at approximately $2.4 million.

“This has been going on now nine weeks for us,” Carter said in reference to the time period in which Murray State has been a top-25 team. “Who knows what it will be, but it is certainly something we could never buy. It’s something that’s almost unimaginable for us to be able to have this kind of national exposure.”

Carter said even when the evaluation is complete, there are other factors that cannot be quantified like the “Murray State Anthem” video and Dick Vitale’s comments about Murray State during nationally broadcasted games.

But it’s not just about the money. The publicity around the basketball team is affecting Murray State in a variety of immeasurable ways.

 University notes online traffic

Since entering the top-25 more than two months ago, Murray State has been working its way up the rankings. And with each week, the University’s website has been seeing more and more traffic.

“Immediately after the first of the year, we began seeing a large increase in daily traffic to the MSU website,” said Tony Powell, web manager. “At present we are seeing five times the amount of daily traffic over what we have seen in the past, and indications are that this upward trend will continue as the Racers continue to win and attract national attention.”

Powell said the website received uncontrollable traffic after the Racers defeated Vanderbilt. Because of that, the University added machines to handle the increased views.

Sivills said with the increase of traffic on the University’s website and social media platforms, the world is able to see Murray State embracing the success of the team.

“The thing that I love about all of this publicity is that most of it shows that spirit,” she said. “Even though it’s related to basketball it feeds into the University and the students here. The students getting behind the campus and the hashtag fun we’ve had with Twitter and the campaign with Dickie V and those kind of things show the spirit of everybody pulling together.”

President Randy Dunn joked that this season has made him feel like the president of University of Kentucky.

“I’ve had many calls for tickets, lots of emails, donors who are wanting to come back to campus for a game and it’s been a challenge for us to deal with all of the requests that are coming in,” Dunn said.

While it has been a difficult task, Dunn said it’s one that the University will benefit from for years.

“There does seem to be a benefit that comes to many parts of the university – obviously more directly for student recruitment, for donor involvement, connecting back to the campus with alumni and somewhat indirectly with things like reputation within the region and things of that nature,” Dunn said.

 Enrollment leverages publicity

The number of admitted students for next fall is up almost 250 people from this time last year, said Fred Dietz, director of enrollment. Dietz said while it’s impossible to know whether those students are choosing Murray State because of the basketball team, it has an impact.

“I think the one thing we notice more than anything everyday are the kids talking about it and the families talking about it,” Dietz said. “Everybody’s so excited about the team and what they’re doing. We have families visiting who are saying, ‘wow, you’re in the top 10.’”

Dietz said recruiters have been leveraging the increased pride around the University when prospective students come to visit.

“What we’ve used more than anything is the spirit side of it and how students are really excited about the campus and what the team’s accomplished,” he said.

Prospective students are getting to attend games and experience the hype first hand, although Dietz said tickets are harder to come by than in previous years.

Dietz said the Racers’ win over Vanderbilt in 2010 came after most high school seniors have selected a university, so it had little effect on enrollment. But he thinks this year may be different.

“This national exposure is a little different in that it’s earlier, it’s over a long period of time,” Dietz said. “It’s not just one great shot and you’re in the limelight for a little while; we’ve been in the limelight for several weeks now so it’s pretty significant from that standpoint.”

Josh Jacobs, chief of staff, announced at Wednesday’s Student Government Association meeting that the University has the potential to reach 12,000 students next fall.

 Graduates gain competitive edge

While some students may not realize it, awareness about the University could add a competitive edge in their job hunts.

“It won’t hurt for us to get that kind of publicity from these various media sources, let’s face it, it’s an unprecedented run,” said Ross Meloan, director of Career Services. “Utilize that exposure to the best of your ability as an individual looking for a position of employment.” Meloan said the basketball team has become a highly popular talking point. It’s even become a conversation among his office and recruiters for the Spring Career Fair, the theme of which happens to be March Madness.

“We picked the theme before Murray State’s success; we just hit it lucky,” Meloan said. “What’s been interesting is we’ve found a couple of companies who in their contact with us start conversations or email with reference to basketball.”

 Alumni reconnect with alma mater

The success of the basketball team and the constantly interactive social media platforms combine to create an opportunity for alumni to reconnect with their alma mater.

“We’re talking to alumni and alumni (are) talking to us like they’re really touched by it; they sometimes get emotional about it because it’s a tradition here at Murray State,” said senior forward Ivan Aska.

Carter said the success has drawn in less active alumni.

“Let’s be honest, this has brought out alumni we haven’t heard from in a while and that’s OK,” Carter said. “Get that sweatshirt out of the closet and wear it to Kroger. We’re loving that people are reconnecting with the University with this kind of pride.”

Carter said alumni are gathering across the nation for viewing parties of Murray State’s televised games.

“A couple of weeks ago we went up against Louisville on the same night; they gave Murray the big screen and put the Louisville folks in the back room,” Carter said of Molly Malone’s restaurant, the Louisville viewing party location.

Carter said the University is also hoping to reap benefits of alumni wanting to reconnect by giving donations, especially since the athletic department is in the early phases of adding a practice facility to the CFSB Center.

 City sees economic boost

The University is not the only entity capitalizing on Racer success. It’s become an advantage for the local economy.

Local restaurants, hotels and other businesses are reporting an increase in patrons. Hotels are seeing more walk-ins on game nights. Restaurants have families stopping to eat before and after games. And when the Racers are on the road, fans fill the booths to watch their team on screen.

“It’s going to definitely put our name in front of a lot of people’s eyes who haven’t seen us before,” said Lance Allison, president/CEO of the Murray-Calloway County Chamber of Commerce. “Any time you have positive national exposure it’s a good thing.”

Matt Mattingly, city administrator, said, while there is no immediate way to measure the impact of the publicity, it could lead to business development.

“I think there are hopefully many businesses that have overlooked us in the past and now that we’ve got some publicity they’ll reconsider us and see what our community has to offer,” Mattingly said.

 Team works for others

The most obvious beneficiary of the publicity, however, is the Murray State athletics department.

From game day preparation to setting aside time for interviews, the athletics staff, coaches, players and team managers have endured a hectic season.

“I’m loving it but I’m holding on right now for all I’m worth because it’s a busy time and I work until I can knock it off for the day and come back the next day and do it again,” said Dave Winder, sports information director for the men’s basketball team.

But for the team, it’s not just about their fame.

“It’s more than just Murray State men’s basketball, I think some people need to realize that,” senior guard Donte Poole said. “We’re doing great but we’re not doing this just for us. It’s for the school; it’s for the community, the fans, the women’s basketball team, the other teams.”