Editorial: Herd players do their part as university ambassadors

April 3, 2018 GMT

College athletics are often described as the front porch to universities — the first exposure many will have before choosing to join the family inside.

Last month, Marshall University found its porch quite full as the Thundering Herd men’s basketball team captured the Conference USA championship and its first NCAA tournament berth since 1987.

As the team’s winning energy took over, the 13-seeded Herd upset fourth-seeded Wichita State University, moving on before ultimately ending its run with a loss against fifth-seeded West Virginia University in the Round of 32. But it’s likely the reverberations from the team’s showing in San Diego will be felt for some time.

When leaders in college communities mention the idea of athletics as the front porch, they mean successful sports teams are what prospective students notice first and what many alumni consider when it comes to giving back financially.

The amount of positive exposure the tournament run offered Marshall delighted those who market the school daily - especially President Jerome Gilbert, who is working to increase enrollment to 15,000 by 2021.

The athletes representing MU likely gave him an assist toward reaching that goal, as a Forbes.com article from 2016 indicates the energy schools generate from their teams’ success has an impact on prospective students and their families. It notes that, from 2009 to 2013, there were 20 teams in the Final Four of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, 16 of which experienced an increase in freshman applications above the national average during the next application cycle.

As Tammy Johnson, director of admissions for Marshall, explains, it’s unlikely a prospective student is going to make his or her college decision based on watching a sporting event - but those games will get the school’s name out there in front of people who didn’t know about it previously.

The proof is in the figures Senior Vice President for Communications and Marketing Ginny Painter provided to Herald-Dispatch reporter Taylor Stuck.

During a typical week, Marshall gets about $300,000 in what she called earned media, which is word-of-mouth marketing from news stories or social media posts, for example. However, during the week Marshall won the Conference USA championship and entered the NCAA Tournament, the university derived $75 million in earned media, Painter said, with the day after the Wichita State win earning the school $16 million alone.

That Marshall was an underdog going into its first tournament game likely generated even more intrigue and interest, according to Bloomberg, which has reported a number of universities that defeated top-seeded competitors during March Madness have seen an even more substantial application bump - especially schools that upset teams seeded at least 10 spots ahead of their own rank.

It wasn’t just basketball that placed the Thundering Herd in front of a national audience recently. As Herald-Dispatch sports reporter Grant Traylor wrote, it was a banner year overall for the Herd’s most visible programs, with football winning eight games, including the New Mexico Bowl win over Colorado State.

Even with both teams in their off seasons, the excitement they generated is unlikely to dissipate any time soon. But instead of a win based on points, the reward is likely to be the potential bump in enrollment creating future fans to descend on Huntington.

The rosters of student ambassadors have done their part for Marshall — now, as Gilbert said, administrators have “got to not let up.”