Why Big Sports Moments Like March Madness Matter to College Marketing

Candace Tsai Apr 08, 2024 Candace Tsai Research Assistant Persona The Independent and Humorous Thrill-Seeker

As March Madness reaches its thrilling championship game, the frenzy of college basketball takes center stage, captivating sports enthusiasts and casual viewers alike.

In a stunning upset during the Elite Eight of the 2024 NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament, 11th-seeded N.C. State defeated 4th-seeded Duke, making N.C. State the sixth No. 11 seed to make the Final Four in men’s NCAA tournament history (Cohen, 2024). Just two hours prior, N.C. State women’s basketball advanced to their first Final Four in 26 years, marking the first time that N.C. State has ever had its men’s and women’s teams reach the Final Four in the same year (Bieler, 2024).

March Madness isn’t just about the excitement of buzzer-beaters and underdog victories; it’s also a stage where colleges and universities can shine or fade in the eyes of the public. Beyond the hardwood battles, the tournament holds significant implications for higher education institutions, impacting their awareness and reputation in ways that extend far beyond the final score. What can a thrilling basketball tournament teach us about branding in higher education?

The Impact of Athletic Success on Higher Education Institutions

Numerous anecdotal reports have illustrated how success in the March Madness tournament can have far-reaching positive consequences for an institution.

Michigan State University’s 2000 National Championship came with 1600 more applications than the previous year (Mixon et al., 2004). Butler University’s National Championship game appearance in 2010 was followed by a 40% applicant spike (Imbert, 2015). Virginia Commonwealth University’s 2011 Final Four appearance came with an endowment increase of nearly 25%, as well as a 326% increase in donations to its athletics department (Imbert, 2015).

The correlation between on-court triumphs and off-court acclaim isn’t limited to basketball alone; colleges and universities that enjoyed success on the football field were also reaping the rewards.

Northwestern University saw a 21% increase in applicants in 1995, a year after winning the Big Ten Conference football championship (McEvoy, 2005). In 2007, Appalachian State University’s stunning upset victory against the University of Michigan triggered a remarkable 15% surge in applications, a surge that persisted until 2010 (Hansen, 2011).

These anecdotal reports highlight the interconnectedness of athletics, institutional image, and the potential for positive impacts on various aspects of an institution. Whether it’s a Cinderella team defying the odds or a perennial powerhouse asserting its dominance, each victory resonates far beyond the final buzzer.

Unraveling the Impact of Sports Success on Institutional Perception: A Carnegie Study

Carnegie wanted to test these anecdotal stories using its expansive history of perception research studies. To delve into the complexities of sports success and its impact on institutional familiarity and reputation, Carnegie began a quantitative review of past survey results.

Carnegie conducted a study that sought to unravel the multifaceted relationship between collegiate sports success and the perceptions of colleges and universities among stakeholders.

Our research team consolidated data from 73 external perception studies conducted between October 2018 and October 2023, and across those studies, 579 colleges and universities were assessed. Those external perception studies were an in-depth look at institutional familiarity, reputation, and personality, as assessed by prospective students, parents, educational influencers, and community leaders. The study predicted familiarity and reputation by schools’ recent success in basketball and football, as well as the athletics division of the school. Other institutional characteristics, like size, location, and institutional type, were used as control variables.

What did we find? First off, let’s talk divisions. It’s no secret that Division I schools dominate the spotlight, drawing millions of viewers and capturing the public’s imagination, but our findings shed light on the nuances of divisional dynamics.

The research findings showed that Division I schools garner higher awareness levels. Additionally, our research found that Division II schools did not have higher awareness compared to the other divisions, including Division III, NAIA, and NCCAA.

Despite these different designations, familiarity and reputation were not significantly impacted, as Division II schools were not receiving significantly higher outcomes. Why? It all comes down to exposure. With high-profile events like the NCAA Division I March Madness tournament drawing millions of viewers, Division I schools that secure a spot in the tournament undoubtedly enjoy a high level of visibility, directly impacting the number of individuals who can remember their name.

While March Madness serves as a focal point, it’s just one part of a larger narrative surrounding collegiate sports. Beyond the excitement of March Madness, the continuous media coverage of Division I athletics on television and various platforms plays a crucial role in shaping institutional perceptions.

However, here’s where things get interesting. Our results showed that while Division I status may elevate awareness, it does not necessarily translate to a greater reputation. Our study challenges the notion that the divisional status of an institution’s athletic program directly translates into enhanced institutional reputation. In fact, we found that divisional status was not significant when predicting reputation scores. It’s an important piece of information for institutions to consider when striving to move up in divisions.

The Marketing Power of Basketball Success

Now, let’s talk three-pointers. When it comes to basketball success, the stakes are high – and so are the rewards.

Our results indicated that the recent success of a college or university’s basketball program can significantly boost familiarity and reputation when controlling for things like institutional size, type, designation, and setting.

The findings underscore the significance of successful basketball programs as effective marketing tools for colleges and universities. Moreover, they offer valuable insights that can inform strategic planning efforts within college athletic departments and institutional leadership, prompting discussions on investing in basketball programs, refining student-athlete recruitment strategies, and developing marketing initiatives to capitalize on athletic success.

While marketers may not have direct control over the success of their basketball team, they should be poised to capitalize on these moments. By preparing compelling narratives and necessary materials in advance, they can effectively leverage the increased visibility and positive associations that come with basketball achievements. This proactive approach ensures that institutions are ready to seize the spotlight when it shines on them, maximizing the impact of their basketball successes on broader marketing strategies.

With every thrilling victory, these institutions, ranging from small-town schools to powerhouse programs, can solidify their presence in the public’s collective consciousness.

The Influence of Football Achievements

It’s essential to recognize that success isn’t limited to one sport. Just as a buzzer-beater can electrify a crowd on the basketball court, a last-second touchdown can ignite the spirit of an entire campus.

Our findings revealed that regardless of institutional size, type, designation, and setting, recent achievements in football can elevate an institution’s familiarity and reputation, casting a positive glow that extends far beyond the end zone.

Surprisingly, however, our study revealed that a football team lacking recent success fails to enhance awareness or reputation compared to institutions without a football team. This finding suggests that institutions relying solely on the presence of a football team to bolster their visibility and reputation may not see significant benefits if the team has not achieved success in recent seasons, underscoring the importance of sustained excellence and competitive performance in athletics programs for enhancing institutional perceptions.

Rather than relying solely on the presence of a football team, marketers should actively promote the achievements and successes of the team to enhance institutional visibility and reputation.

Beyond March Madness: Broadening the Scope of Sports Marketing

While March Madness may dominate the headlines, it’s just one piece of the puzzle in the complex world of college perceptions. While more research can be done in this area, one thing was already made clear from this study: March Madness isn’t just a tournament – it’s a strategic opportunity for colleges and universities to showcase their strengths, shape perceptions, and secure a competitive edge in the higher education world.

It’s crucial to recognize that the principles observed in March Madness aren’t exclusive to Division I schools. Even institutions in Division II, III, and other divisions can leverage key tournaments and sports moments within their respective leagues to enhance their visibility and reputation.

While they may not attract the national spotlight like Division I schools during March Madness, by strategically aligning their marketing efforts with important tournaments and sporting events within their division, these schools have unique opportunities to capture the attention of their target audience and strengthen their connection with the local community. Whether through social media campaigns, local events, or targeted outreach to prospective student-athletes, institutions can effectively capitalize on the excitement surrounding these sporting events to elevate their brand and reputation.

The Game-Changing Impact of Sports on Higher Education Marketing

While the focus of this study may have been on understanding the impact of collegiate sports success on institutional perception, the findings have broader applications that extend to various aspects of higher education marketing and branding.

First and foremost, Carnegie is submitting this research to a peer-reviewed conference, ensuring it will undergo additional rigorous evaluation and validation in the field from sports communication experts.

Beyond athletics, the study provides valuable insights into the factors influencing institutional perception, including institutional size, type, and location. By examining these variables alongside athletics success, Carnegie can offer clients a comprehensive understanding of how various factors contribute to their overall reputation and awareness among stakeholders.

Furthermore, the findings serve as a benchmark for clients to assess their institutional standing over time and track changes in perception. By leveraging these insights, institutions can develop targeted strategies to enhance their visibility, reputation, and competitiveness in an increasingly competitive higher education landscape. With the right strategy, your institution can emerge victorious on and off the court.


Want to learn more about how we can help you leverage our research insights to boost your institution’s visibility, reputation, and competitiveness? Start a conversation today.


Bieler, D. (2024). N.C. State men and women reach Final Four; Purdue, South Carolina advance. Washington Post. Retrieved March 31, 2024, from https://washingtonpost.com/sports/2024/03/31/march-madness-games-scores-live-updates/

Chung, D. J. (2015). How much is a win worth? An application to intercollegiate athletics. Management Science, 63(2), 548-565. https://doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.2015.2337

Cohen, R. (2024). Men’s NCAA Final Four is set with 11th seed N.C State’s shocking upset of Duke. NBC News. Retrieved March 31, 2024, from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/sports/mens-ncaa-final-four-set-11th-seed-nc-state-upset-duke-rcna145790

Hansen, J. M. (2011). The effects of athletic success on college enrollment applications. The effects of athletic success on college enrollment applications [Graduate dissertation, Texas Tech University] Texas Tech University Libraries. http://hdl.handle.net/2346/ETD-TTU-2011-05-1392

Imbert, F. (2015). How ‘Cinderellas’ cash in on March Madness. CNBC. Retrieved March 15, 2024, from https://www.cnbc.com/2015/03/09/cinderella-stories-like-gonzaga-and-butler-saw-boosts-in-applications-after-ncaa-tournament-runs.html

McEvoy, C. (2005). The relationship between dramatic changes in team performance and undergraduate admissions applications. The SMART Journal 2(1), 17-24.

Mixon Jr., F. G., Trevino, L. J., & Minto, T. C. (2004). Touchdowns and test scores: Exploring the relationship between athletics and academics. Applied Economics Letters, 11, 421-424.

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