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March Madness & How College Sports Brings In The Big Bucks!

Have you ever heard of the ‘Flutie Effect’? It’s a phenomenon that occurs when success in college sporting events leads to a boost in a school’s reputation which then attracts more students and leads to increased donations.

There’s nothing like watching your college team bounce and shoot their way to victory to give you a sense of pride and connection to your alma mater! The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, otherwise known as ‘March Madness’ in the United States, has just come to an end. Today we look at how you should use sporting events like this to create a strong feeling of community among both current students and alumni.

More about the Flutie Effect

Athletic programs are a fantastic marketing opportunity for any higher education institution. A study conducted by UC Berkeley and NBER in 2016 found that improved athletic performance in tournaments was associated with increased numbers of applications the following year, as well as increased donations.

Another great benefit of events like these is that they can bring in huge sums of money every spring for the schools that are lucky enough to compete.

Every year, higher education institutions in the US bring in millions of dollars through men’s basketball. Revenue is generated through many different streams including ticket sales, marketing and the sale of merchandise like jerseys and sweaters. The University of Louisville generated nearly $44 million dollars in profit in the academic year 2016-2017, Duke made nearly $35 million the same year, and many other schools, including Syracuse University, the University of Kentucky and the University of Arizona brought in over $25 million. These are enormous sums of money that allow these schools to build and maintain some of the best athletic departments in the country.

More interesting for anyone involved in fundraising however is the fact that, aside from the revenue generated by the tournaments and events themselves, having a champion basketball team also attracts massive donations to University athletic departments. North Carolina’s Tar Heels won the tournament in 2017 and the school received nearly $23 million dollars in major gifts to its athletic department that same year.

Star Donors

Although college basketball players are not salaried during their studies, their careers can become extremely lucrative very quickly after graduation, so these alumni have the potential to become some of your most incredible donor prospects. Over the past few years, we’ve seen some incredibly generous donations made to schools across the country by their basketball-star alumni.

In 2015, Draymond Green, a Michigan State graduate, donated $ 3.1 million dollars to their athletics department. Green feels a strong affiliation to his alma mater and has made it clear that he intends to keep donating, not only to the athletics department but also wants to be the first athlete to endow a scholarship at the school. Michigan State has one of the most successful Major Gifts campaigns in the country and has also managed to secure over $4 million dollars in donations from Magic Johnson over the past couple of years, who is also a great friend of the school. Kevin Durant, who played one year of college basketball for the University of Texas, donated $3 million dollars to the school in 2017.

If you work in Advancement, you might think that this money isn’t relevant to you, as donations to the athletics department may not directly count towards your annual giving targets. However, improved sports facilities for a wealth of different sports can help your college to attract the best applicants and improve application rates. Fantastic sports facilities can also make for a better university experience, leading to improved relationships with current students and alumni, improved alumni engagement and increased alumni giving.

Stars like Draymond Green, Magic Johnson, and Kevin Durant are also fantastic prospects to invite to alumni events or to reach out to for activities such as grants, scholarships, and mentorship programs. These individuals will draw in a crowd to any alumni event that they attend, and if they feel a strong connection to their alma mater, they might even donate their time or money to support fundraising efforts.

Even basketball stars who aren’t alumni have been known to make extremely generous contributions to schools and athletics departments in their communities. LeBron James, who grew up in Akron, Ohio, didn’t attend college, but famously pledged to pay for as many as 2,300 kids from his hometown to go to University if they attended the University of Akron.

Are you effectively targeting your sports-star alumni? Have you been in touch with sport-stars from your local area? March Madness could be the perfect time to do just that!

How YOU can make the most of March Madness!

This two-week tournament can be an important time of year for college Advancement departments, so don’t miss out on this fabulous opportunity.

Is your school playing?

If you’re one of the 65 schools that are lucky enough to be competing in a tournament like this, here are a few ideas to help maximize the opportunity to increase revenue and improve alumni engagement:

  1. Promote the sale of tickets and merchandise, particularly to your alumni. Send out flyers with details of the events to all alumni in your database, inviting them to attend and helping to make them feel part of the community.

  2. Send targeted marketing to alumni from different schools asking for donations to help towards scholarship programs for athletes.

  3. Put your school on the map and at the forefront of your alumni’s minds through TV and media exposure.

  4. Organize fun alumni events in your community. You could arrange celebration/commiseration parties following each game that your school competes in, as well as screening other games in your athletics hall.

  5. Make a list of any sports-stars that have graduated from your school and invite them to participate in your events and fundraising programs.

Not in the tournament?

Even if your school isn’t competing, you can use an event like March Madness as an opportunity to bring students and the alumni community together and generate more donations. Here are just a few ways that you could maximize any sporting event’s potential:

  1. Organize a screening of games in your school and invite all your local alumni.

  2. Promote a fun fundraising initiative to raise money and connect alumni. You could ask ‘Which historical class was the “best”‘? And invite alumni from each graduating class to participate by making a small donation. This could also help you to get in touch with hard-to-reach alumni as alumni from each class may contact their friends and ask them to participate.

  3. You could also organize a sweepstake by school, rather than graduating year –  the winning department gets a trophy and the right to brag. Events like these are a great way to get your alumni to engage with other alumni and increase your pool of alumni contacts.

  4. Sell merchandise – even if your college doesn’t have a top-50 sports team, your alumni will still want to support them by wearing a school jersey or sweater with pride.

We hope you have your team colors on and your hot dogs and sodas ready while cheering for your favorite team! We wish you all the best of luck, both in your athletic events and in your fundraising initiatives.


Sources & Additional Reading

[1]  Athletic Success,

[2] A Million Thanks,

[3] March Madness,

[4] Big Money to Alma Mater,

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