Sweet 16 for FGCU Eagles: Will 'dunk city' see long-term benefits?

The FGCU Eagles have found their way into the Sweet 16, putting the tiny, new college on the map. As they gear up to face the Gators in their Sweet 16 matchup, will their success yield lasting benefits?

Michael Perez/AP/File
Sherwood Brown (25) of Florida Gulf Coast University drives past and shoots over Georgetown's Jabril Trawick (55) and Georgetown's D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera (4) during the first round of the NCAA tournament last week in Philadelphia.

There are Cinderella teams. And then there are the FGCU Eagles, who are gearing up to face the University of Florida Gators Friday night at 10 p.m. on TBS.

By its very nature, the NCAA tournament, a 68-team, single-elimination free-for-all, has seen its fair share of unlikely squads making deep runs, thrusting their home schools suddenly into the national consciousness. Butler, George Mason, and VCU are a few recent examples.

But before last Friday, it was a safe bet that most Floridians didn’t know where Florida Gulf Coast University was, let alone most Americans. That changed over the weekend, when the Eagles, in only their second season as a Division I basketball program, rattled off decisive victories against No. 2 seed Georgetown and No. 7-seed San Diego state, respectively, to become the first 15-seed ever to make it to the Sweet 16. Their rise caught everyone by surprise.

Really, everyone. Nearly 8.2 million NCAA brackets were submitted last week to ESPN’s Tournament Challenge; After the first round, there wasn’t a single perfect bracket left, thanks in large part to the Fort Myers upstarts. 

The New York Times repeatedly called the school “Gulf Coast College” in a recap of the Friday win over Georgetown; Sunday, San Diego State head coach Steve Fisher called the team that defeated his Aztecs “Florida State” (though he may have been joking). LeBron James congratulated the team on Twitter, but called the school "Florida Golf Coast" (incorrect, but not totally inaccurate. The school offers a "Golf Management" major). When asked by NPR where FGCU is, and how big it is, Tampa Bay Times journalist John Woodrow Cox replied, “I didn’t know the answer to any of those questions until Friday.”

Millions of people know the answer to those questions now. Financially, that means a boost for the basketball program that could have lasting benefits for the young college. 

FGCU’s tournament success won’t yield huge bucks directly, especially by the standards of major Division I college sports. Part of the reason: Their winnings have to be shared equally with the other eight members of the Atlantic Sun Conference. If the Eagles lose to the Gators on Friday, they will have played three games in this year’s tournament, earning a $250,000 payout for each, says Victor Matheson, a sports economist and professor at The College of the Holy Cross in Worchester, Mass. “They get those three tournament shares every year for six years. That’s $3 million in the pocket of the Atlantic Sun Conference, when normally, they get their one automatic bid [and $250,000] every year and that’s it.” 

It won’t be exactly rolling in for head coach Andy Enfield, either. Mr. Enfield’s salary from FGCU is a respectable $157,000. According to ESPN’s Daren Rovell, Enfield got an additional $5,000 bonus for making the tournament, a $10,000 bonus for making the round 16, and would make another $25,000 for winning the entire thing.

Compared to the high end of the college coaching pay scale, that’s tiny potatoes: John Calipari, last year’s tournament winner with Kentucky, made $100,000 for making the Sweet 16, $150,00 for making the Final Four, and another $350,000 for winning the title, all on top of his then-$3.8 million annual base salary. 

But a successful basketball program can yield more intangible benefits for universities in terms of revenue, recruitment, and alumni relations. For one, the NCAA tournament is all upside for participating teams, which don’t have to pay for travel expenses or sell tickets. That’s not true of college football’s bowl system, which requires teams to buy up hotel rooms and eat the cost of any unsold tickets, a huge problem for small schools forced to travel far for a postseason berth.

The TV contracts for March Madness are worth about $600 million annually, Mr. Matheson says, and allows the league to pay teams’ expenses from the tournament, as well as fund “every team in every sport across all divisions."

FGCU is enjoying a meteoric boost in visibility and school spirit, at least for now. The school’s athletics website crashed under the weight of unprecedented traffic over the weekend, and much of the school apparel sold online was back-ordered. AP reported phone lines jammed with people seeking tickets to Friday’s game.

It will definitely help the Eagles in Florida’s tough athletic recruiting landscape: The University of Florida, Florida State, and the University of Miami are among the most storied college sports programs in the country, so any little bit of spotlight helps. Academically, the advantages are less clear.

After its 2011 Final Four appearance, Butler saw its application rates jump 41 percent. FGCU, which culls 92 percent of its students from Florida, could see a similar jump and a more varied pool of applicants, though Matheson warns. “You may get a lot more shoppers but no more buyers, and you may not get any better students. Those who would choose based on that probably aren’t” better students.

There’s some evidence that sports success increases alumni giving, and FGCU has everything to gain in that department: The school has only been up and running since 1997, and its annual endowment is around $50 million (UF’s, meanwhile, is about $1.3 billion). But Matheson warns that donations inspired by the basketball program will probably end up there, and won’t result in any extra money for academics.

Still, he says, athletics are a good way for small colleges like FGCU to build an identity and better reach out to their student body and the community at large. At the very least, the Eagles’ high-flying tournament run, full of dancing, dunks, and decisive victories, have given the school and the city of Fort Myers a personality that, to the rest of the nation, looks like a whole lot of fun. Indeed, Fort Myers has fully embraced the Eagles, even putting #dunkcity below the city's name on every page of its tourism website, cityftmyers.com

Coach Enfield, meanwhile, can probably expect a pay raise. According to naplesnews.com, FGCU officials have already met to discuss doubling his salary, and his name is being bandied about for the vacant head coaching job at UCLA.

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