When UMBC ousted top-seeded Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday night, the Retrievers did more than just accomplish something 135 other No. 16 seeds could not.
They also generated a transformative amount of free publicity for a university that previously was largely unknown outside Maryland and neighboring states.
Eighty-seven percent of UMBC’s mentions on social media in the past 12 months occurred either on Friday night or Saturday, according to Johnny Vance, director of strategic programming at the media intelligence company, Meltwater. Of the 842,778 social media mentions UMBC has received in the last 12 months, 734,284 have occurred since Friday night and 339,000 were posted between 11 p.m. ET and midnight on Friday night.
Among the prominent Twitter accounts to give UMBC a shout-out on Friday night included everyone from NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers, to news anchor Dan Rather, to the fast food chain Wendy’s, to the Baltimore Ravens. UMBC’s social media czar has become a bigger celebrity than some of the players for his snarky sense of humor and the university’s Twitter handle went from 5,000 followers on Friday morning to 87,000 on Saturday night.
“I’m getting so many notifications that my phone froze,” UMBC point guard K.J. Maura said Saturday. “And it does that every time I open an application, so I just can text.”
The coverage UMBC has received in the traditional news media has been equally impactful as a wide range of prominent outlets have highlighted the Retrievers’ accomplishment. Thirty-seven percent of the 47,383 news articles mentioning UMBC in the past 12 months were published since Friday night, Vance said.
At 11 a.m. ET on Saturday morning, the media evaluation firm Joyce Julius and Associates estimated that publicity UMBC had generated was worth $21.3 million in equivalent advertising exposure. By 11 p.m. ET on Saturday night, Meltwater put that number at about $119 million, meaning that roughly a third of the publicity value UMBC has generated in the past 12 months occurred in 24 hours.
“Given that it’s the first time that a 16 seed has toppled a 1, I would expect this story to have a longer tail than your ‘usual’ upset, irrespective of their performance in the remainder of the tournament,” Vance said. “I think it’s fair to say that this will continue to generate more good publicity for the school and overall March numbers will leave all other upsets in the dust in terms of exposure for the school.”
History suggests that UMBC’s tidal wave of publicity will likely lead to a massive surge in freshman applications for the 2019-20 school year. When an underdog pulls a headline-grabbing NCAA tournament upset, curious prospective students often seek out more information about the school that just busted their brackets and in the process discover the university has more to offer than just basketball.
Freshman applications to Georgia State increased 28.5 percent for the 2016-17 school year after the Panthers ousted third-seeded Baylor in the 2015 NCAA tournament. Florida Gulf Coast enjoyed a 27 percent rise after it became the first-ever No. 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16 in 2013 and Middle Tennessee had a 16.9 percent increase after it stunned second-seeded Michigan State in the 2016 NCAA tournament.
“The cliche is that you can’t buy the kind of exposure we got, but it’s true,” Georgia State athletic director Charlie Cobb said. “It gave Georgia State an advertising vehicle it had never had before.”
UMBC should also expect a boost in alumni donations and ticket and merchandise sales during the coming year. It also might want to invest in a stronger server after an avalanche of visitors crashed its website during Friday night’s game.
That UMBC is in this position is remarkable given the school’s bleak recent basketball history.
When coach Ryan Odom took over at UMBC in 2016, he inherited a program that had endured seven straight 20-loss seasons. Odom executed a quick turnaround, adding enough talent around standout guard Jairus Lyles to help the Retrievers win 21 games last season and 25 so far this year.
UMBC will attempt to forge new ground for a No. 16 seed once again Sunday night when it faces ninth-seeded Kansas State in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Teams seeded 14th or worse are just 3-26 in the round of 32, but UMBC has already proven it can buck history.
If UMBC were to upset Kansas State, it would mean more than a Sweet 16 trip for the Retrievers.
They would also guarantee themselves another five days as America’s darlings, another five days of raking in tens of millions of dollars in brand awareness and exposure.
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More March Madness coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• UMBC shocks Virginia, first 16-seed ever to beat a No. 1
• What is UMBC? Everything you need to know about the university
• UMBC’s upset eliminated last perfect bracket in Yahoo Sports Tourney Pick’em
• Where UMBC’s upset of Virginia ranks among all-time greatest upsets
• Meet UMBC’s other hero, the man behind its famous Twitter account