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NDSU starts to see financial benefit of men's basketball's NCAA tournament run

The NDSU men's basketball team takes the floor prior to its NCAA tournament game last month. (David Samson/The Forum)

Joseph Chapman went unrecognized by a Minneapolis television reporter during one of his campus walks on a March afternoon at North Dakota State University.

The reporter and his cameraman were in Fargo reporting on the NDSU men's basketball team, which was on the verge of playing in its first NCAA tournament.

"Sir, you don't happen to be a basketball fan, do you?" the reporter asked Chapman.

"Yeah, I guess so," said Chapman, whose 'President Joe' stitching on his jacket caught the attention of the reporter.

"Are you associated with the TeamMakers group or something?" the reporter asked, referring to NDSU's athletic-fundraising organization.

"Actually, I'm the president of the university," Chapman finally divulged.

The reporter hit the jackpot.

So did NDSU during a two-week flurry of regional and national exposure that Chapman describes as priceless.

The spotlight was on NDSU from the moment the Bison men's basketball team made ESPN highlights with its March 10 Summit League championship win until they gave defending national champion Kansas a scare 10 days later in a nationally televised NCAA tournament game.

It was as bright as Chapman envisioned on Aug. 31, 2002, the day he announced NDSU was making the move to Division I.

Since then, enrollment has risen nearly 19 percent, annual research spending has skyrocketed from $40 million to $100 million, athletic fundraising has more than doubled to $2 million, annual bookstore sales of logo merchandise has jumped from $650,000 to $900,000 and a recent capital campaign netted $108 million.

"A lot of that campaign revolved around the success we were having in athletics," Chapman said. "Athletics is a major part of our marketing for the institution.

"It's just astonishing. It's a whole new dimension for us. We believe we have brought very significant visibility not only to our institution but to our community and to the entire state."

Priceless marketing

NDSU officials say the impact last month's NCAA tournament appearance will have on enrollment, fundraising and ticket sales won't be truly known until next fall.

But if George Mason University's Cinderella run to the Final Four during the 2006 NCAA tournament is any indication, the numbers could skyrocket. Robert Baker, director of George Mason's Center for Sports Management, estimated the school earned an estimated $677 million in free media.

"Ours certainly wouldn't reach that level," said NDSU athletic director Gene Taylor. "But boy, I tell you what ... to buy that kind of exposure across the entire country. I don't know what the price tag would be, but it would be significant."

"I don't believe there is enough money to buy that," Chapman said. "And the reason ... it's the event and you can't create the event. I think it is a priceless marketing piece."

Chapman said NDSU's 2007 football upset over Minnesota was a big reason the school saw a 23 percent increase in first-year students last fall - the biggest jump in school history.

That figure didn't surprise Prakash Mathew, vice president of student affairs, and Jobey Lichtblau, director of admissions. Both sensed a revived interest in NDSU when they set up shop at a college fair in the Twin Cities.

"Students would come up to you and say, 'Oh, you are the ones who beat Minnesota,' " Mathew said. "Next year, we are hoping they will be talking to us about our basketball story. And we hope that translates into more students coming to North Dakota State."

Since NDSU started its transition to Division I in 2003, enrollment has increased from 11,146 to 13,229. If the growth trend continues, NDSU officials predict an enrollment of 16,000 by 2014.

"High school students are doing more investigative work on our school based on athletic success," Lichtblau said. "It has really opened the door where the door may not have been opened before."

NDSU fundraising officials agree that the impact of the NCAA tournament appearance would have been even greater two or three years ago when the nation's economy was more vibrant.

Sherri Schmidt is the assistant executive director of the NDSU Alumni Association, which seeks donations from the school's 70,000 graduates. Schmidt says alumni are being a little more careful with their money because of the tough economy.

"But their enthusiasm hasn't changed for the institution ... especially when they see the basketball team play on TV," Schmidt said.

Erv Inniger is the senior associate athletic director for development who is raising money for the renovation of the Bison Sports Arena and the proposed basketball arena that would be added onto the Fargodome.

He said due largely to the NCAA tournament appearance, he has nine pages worth of donations ranging from $25 to $10,000. But Inniger said the six-figure donations are on hold because of the economic downturn.

"No question this recent exposure has helped," Inniger said. "If you were thinking about giving and you see this (NCAA tournament game), it's a push. Now they can see the fruits of our labor.

"We hope this recent exposure will help with the Bison Sports Arena and the new arena. Our facilities are outdated. We need to get this done now. It's a frontburner issue for us."

Officials are convinced a new basketball arena would increase interest in men's basketball even more. Since 2005, season-ticket holders for men's basketball has increased from 1,273 to 1,592.

Pat Simmers is executive director of TeamMakers, whose 1,883 members raised a record $2.088 million in 2008 for the athletic program. He said the biggest impact he has seen from the NCAA tournament appearance is members adding basketball tickets to their current membership.

"When we get a resolution for a new basketball arena, that will bring basketball to the forefront," Simmers said.

Maintaining momentum

NDSU men's basketball coach Saul Phillips would love to show recruits a new arena plus a new practice facility and new locker rooms - part of the Bison Sports Arena renovation plans.

While patiently waiting for additions that will only help recruiting, Phillips thinks the NCAA tournament exposure has already made his recruiting list a lot deeper. Even though St. Cloud Tech standout guard Nate Wolters turned down an NDSU scholarship last week, Phillips says he has plenty of options to fill the one scholarship opening for next year's team.

"My messages have been jam packed with kids from all over the country ... saying things like, 'I can come and do this. I can be the next Ben Woodside,' " Phillips said referring to his point guard who ended his Bison career by lighting up Kansas for 37 points in the NCAA tournament.

"When you think about it, what point guard in America doesn't want to be in Ben Woodside's shoes? You hope and pray the exposure we got will have that type of impact. It's almost relieving."

The challenge now is maintaining the momentum of the NCAA tournament appearance. Since its Final Four run in 2006, George Mason has reached one other tournament.

Before becoming NDSU's athletic director, Taylor was working at Navy when its basketball team played in the 1994, 1997 and 1998 NCAA tournaments. Navy hasn't been in one since.

"You saw how perilously close we were with a very good basketball team to win the championship," Taylor said. "Whether you can win that championship to get you in the NCAA tournament every year, that's really hard to do. We just want to position ourselves so that is a chance."

For Chapman, that momentum is infectious across the campus.

"My philosophy has been ... you get very talented people and you create an environment where they can be successful," Chapman said. "And if they are being successful, they then will create their own momentum and that momentum comes to the entire institution. That's what we have in athletics."