March Madness: Win or lose, Wright State sees big benefits in NCAA tournament bid

The financial rough patch isn’t yet over at Wright State University, but the school is basking in a rare bit of sunlight thanks to the men’s basketball team, which qualified for the NCAA tournament for the first time in 11 years.

“It’s a complete win-win,” athletic director Bob Grant said about the tournament. “Only 68 schools get there, so getting there is a great step for us.”

Wright State hasn’t had many big wins in the last few years and remains under federal investigation over possible visa fraud. It had to pull out of hosting the first presidential debate in 2016 because of financial concerns, and in June the school’s board of trustees slashed more than $30.8 million from the university’s budget.

It’s hard to measure what qualifying for the tournament will mean for the school’s long-term economic outlook, but it’s worth noting that the school is finally getting exposure for something positive.

Wright State finds out on Sunday who the basketball team will play, but it’s expected to be one of the nation’s powerhouses. Win or lose, the school’s stature will undoubtedly rise just from making it to the dance.

“There will literally be millions of dollars in exposure,” Grant said. “This is a great shot in the arm for any university.”

Hot seat

The shot in the arm is coming from an athletic program that has also been on the hot seat.

While most department budgets were downsized by cuts, athletics programs actually received a $1.4 million boost to their budgets. Though officials said the increase in budgeted money was $200,000 less than what was spent on athletics the previous year, the move generated intense scrutiny.

In a June letter to then-interim president Curtis McCray, more than 250 WSU faculty members called out the university for the athletics budget increase and said the decision was “disgraceful” and a “gross strategic blunder.”

The athletics budget again emerged during contract negotiations between president Cheryl Schrader’s administration and the Wright State chapter of the American Association of University Professors. A contract is about a year overdue and faculty union members have repeatedly pointed to the athletics budget as an example of what some perceive to be the university’s skewed priorities.

Schrader, a graduate of Valparaiso University — which has had some success in past NCAA tournaments — is a long-time basketball fan and a big supporter of college athletics. She attended both the men’s and women’s Horizon League championship games in Detroit last week.

The athletics budget is a debate at every college, Schrader said, but she argued the value of a prospering program is undeniable.

“I think that you have some of that buzz at whatever institution you’re at, but here the value added by the athletics programs is very clear,” Schrader said.

‘No bigger megaphone’

The basketball team’s success has already begun to pay off, according to a report from the university.

In the six days after Wright State won the Horizon League title, the positive media amounted to around $4.64 million, the report says. The championship game was carried by ESPN.

To date, the free press coverage WSU teams received in fiscal year 2018 amounts to the equivalent of $16.43 million in ad spending, easily eclipsing last year’s total of $12.6 million, said spokesman Seth Bauguess, who generated the report using a calculation that translates earned media into projected ad dollars.

“When you consider athletics…there is no bigger megaphone” than the NCAA tournament, Bauguess said.

The dollar figures dwarf what the university generates in positive media coverage without athletics, according to the report, which estimated that figure at $1.57 million in FY 2018.

More than 2,131 stories have been published on Wright State’s teams since the championship, amounting to more than 70 million impressions on readers, according to the university.

Grant recalled Wright State’s 2007 tournament game and how it “bumped our media exposure dramatically.” This time, he said, it’s likely to have an even bigger impact because of the growth in social media.

The next Boise State?

Schrader has personally seen how a team’s success can become a boon for a university.

She was an administrator at Boise State University in Idaho when that school’s football team rose to prominence. On New Year’s day in 2007, Boise State went to its first Fiesta Bowl and defeated the University of Oklahoma Sooners to capture one of the top trophies in college football.

Two years later the team went undefeated again and finished fourth in the final Associated Press poll.

Schrader has long thought Wright State could be the next Boise State, with basketball as the launching pad. Qualifying for the NCAA tournament is a step toward elevating the university’s stature, she said.

“When you go onto the national scene in a situation such as the big dance, you have that opportunity,” Schrader said. “It’s always great to be a (Horizon League) champion…I think this is at a time where people are really eager to move forward in a positive direction.”

The opportunity isn’t lost on men’s basketball coach Scott Nagy, who gets to wrap up his second season with Wright State immersed in March Madness.

Nagy, who came to WSU from South Dakota State in 2016, led that school to tournament appearances in 2012, 2013 and 2016.

Nagy said being in the national spotlight is always a good thing.

“There’s no way for the university to get that kind of exposure, so there’s no question it’s good for the university and it’s good publicity,” Nagy said. “People want to be able to win.”

A basketball bump

Wright State hopes the basketball team’s success helps with another one of the school’s problems: sagging enrollment.

Wright State’s full-time enrollment has declined by close to 3,000 since the school’s peak during the 2010-2011 school year. Next fall, WSU administrators are expecting a 2 percent enrollment decline, which would amount to a $3.5 million loss in revenue.

Trips to the NCAA tournament often translate into more potential students, several universities have reported.

Wright State saw an impact in 2007, as inquiries about the university spiked the following fall, Bauguess said. The University of Dayton’s run to the Elite Eight in 2014 resulted in a bump of 10,000 inquiries from prospective students, according to UD officials.

Schrader said even graduate school applications rose at Boise State after its football team’s groundbreaking Fiesta Bowl win.

Wright State will gladly take advantage of any increased interest the school receives from this year’s post-season run, Schrader said.

“We would expect to see some type of bump here,” she said, “and we are ready to help capture and leverage whatever that means.”

Raider basketball history

2007: 21-point loss to Pittsburgh in NCAA tournament.

1993: 43-point loss to Indiana in NCAA tournament.

1987: WSU joins Division I as independent team.

1983: WSU wins Division II national title.

Source: Wright State University.

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