Later tonight, the NCAA championship game between Michigan and Louisville will tipoff in the Georgia Dome. Even though a champion has yet to be crowned, we can begin to make some judgments regarding the marketing winners, losers, and questions marks of this year’s tournament. Before we provide our thoughts, please note that tournament success will usually result in greater publicity, fan loyalty, and all the spoils that come with brand equity (think Apple or BMW).
The two teams in the championship game are both interesting stories. Louisville is a marketing monster, and enjoys the greatest “revenue premium” relative to on-court performance, but Michigan is another story. Michigan performs poorly on our brand equity metric because history shows that Michigan needs to win consistently to keep the arena packed. Anecdotally, we had to explain this poor brand equity finding to a distinguished University of Michigan business school professor, who pointed at this year’s excitement as an indicator of fan loyalty. Given that this was a UM professor, we had to explain using small words, that true fan loyalty means that the fans even show up in down years.
For the two teams in the championship, Louisville is a clear brand equity winner, as they will continue to lengthen their lead on the competition; but the jury is still out on Michigan. The only potential losers in the Louisville family are the Louisville fans that could be asked to pay higher prices. As a frustrated University of Illinois fan, Professor Lewis would view this as a very small sacrifice for basketball success.
Michigan faces the challenge of all football schools: the year consists of the football season, spring football, and the remainder is perhaps a tossup between basketball season and football recruiting. For Michigan to create true basketball brand equity, the school needs to sustain success. While Coach Beilein’s history suggests this is likely, Michigan could lose multiple underclassmen to the NBA draft.
Two schools that didn’t make the NCAA Tournament also offer an education comparison. Tubby Smith failed to make the tournament, and was replaced by Rick Patino’s son, Richard. Given Minnesota’s high level of brand equity (2nd in the Big Ten), this was likely a decision to protect the brand by trying to bring in a dynamic young recruiter. The most notable team to fail to make the tournament was last year’s winner, the Kentucky Wildcats. The Emory Sports Marketing Science Initiative makes no pronouncements about Kentucky. I think we can all agree that Kentucky and Coach Calipari have developed a new and unique business model.
March Madness is known for its Cinderellas. This year’s top two Cinderella stories were the Wichita State Shockers and the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles. Our assessment is that Wichita State was the BIG winner. Not only did the Shockers reach the magical level of the Final Four, but also, at least as of now, Coach Marshall is sticking around. For a mid-major to build equity, the school needs to sustain success beyond that achieved by an individual coach. This last point brings us to FGCU. By his hitting the exit for USC with amazing haste, it is likely that any fan excitement created by reaching the Sweet 16 has left the state of Florida with Andy Enfield.