Last Sunday night LaSalle finished off a stunning weekend in Kansas City with a last second upset win over the University of Mississippi, you could almost hear crickets chirping in the upper level of a near-empty Sprint Center. The combination of some bad weather outside and bad play by the Kansas State Wildcats left the arena woefully short of bodies in the lower deck, let alone upstairs. Similar light crowds dotted other sessions throughout the country, and the women’s bracket, even with home court play still for many of the top seeds, saw wide expanses of empty seats, with several schools not having students around because of spring break. Now that was not the case in every regional, as the Duke faithful gobbled up every seat in Philadelphia, and other schools that travel well…Louisville, Syracuse, Marquette…helped raise regional attendance in select sites. But overall the flavor of March Madness in the early rounds is still felt more on TV and Mobile devices than it sometimes is in venues where small schools bring small crowds, no matter how big a Cinderella role they may play.
This weekend’s Elite 8 will be different, with full houses expected at every venue as the tournament reaches a frenzy. However the fact remains that for all the championships that the NCAA pits on, precious few turn profits or fill all the seats and those secondary men’s and women’s basketball events; NIT, CBI, CIT, drain more dollars from college accounts than they put on, all for the sake of a few more games.
As “March Madness” dominates the headlines, there are other championships that do very well. This year’s “Frozen Four,” the NCAA Division I men’s hockey championship, will bring thousands of fans for a four day celebration of hockey to the sold out Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, and last weekend, “March Matness,” the NCAA Division I wrestling championships, saw record crowds turn out in Des Moines, Iowa at the Wells Fargo Center. In fact the NCAA Championships in wrestling have outgrown their usual settings several years in a row, to the point where Des Moines, a wrestling hotbed, may not be able to house the event in future years. Not enough seats or hotel rooms, and the competition for the event…Pittsburgh, Oklahoma City, Indianapolis, even New York…has made the NCAA’s a must have for many cities. Even baseball, for all its spring-related weather problems in many parts of the country, is a money maker for Omaha, Nebraska, the home of the College World Series.
So to be a successful draw, does a major sport have to take on the bright lights, or are there cities where the green can flow and the seats can be filled regardless of a hometown favorite. If you went to Iowa for the NCAA’s last week for example, seeing Cornell’s Kyle Dake take a record fourth NCAA title in four weight classes, or being there for Penn State to win their second straight NCAA team title, in front of raucous, supportive fans, would have been more than enough for any convention and visitors bureau to want to sign up. Looking at the empty seats in Kansas City, would groups feel the same way?
“The success of college sports and their economic viability as revenue generating signature events does not have to be confined to football and basketball,” said Dan Mannix, president of Lead Dog Marketing, one of the nation’s largest event marketing firms. “There are a number of college sports that could have very successful “Championship Weekends” that would also be valuable events for cities to host. There is the reality that the reason why football and basketball are so impactful is due to the size of their audiences and the media vehicles that amplify the stories. But every event doesn’t have to fill an 80,000 seat stadium to be deemed a success. It becomes a revenue and expense equation and the support system around the Championship- from fans, to the city and college support, the right marketing partners, the right demographics to align with sponsors trying to reach those audiences. And at the end of the day, it will build momentum if it is a quality event experience which can grow from year to year.”
So while we all sit back and enjoy this month’s hoops feast, the fact remains if you were in many regional cities you could have had a chance to actually go to the game for a song. To try and do that for wrestling or hockey, this month, even at one of the hockey regionals, may be much much tougher to do. The wrestling leadership even took the opportunity of the overflow crowd and the national media window to launch the latest version of the plan to put wrestling back in the Olympics during the weekend in Des Moines. The story and the plan gained international attention despite the fact it was on a Friday on one of the most crowded event days on the calendar. That type of draw speaks volumes for what “other” NCAA events can do for brands as well.
Make no mistake; football and men’s basketball still rule the roost when it comes to dollars for NCAA institutions. However it is interesting to note that other sports, ones which are even better experiences in person, like wrestling and hockey and even baseball, can hold their own for dollars and fan support even in the tightest of windows. Sometimes it does pay to be the biggest fish, no matter what the size of the sea.