A loss for the basketball team, a win for UMBC

Hours before tipoff Sunday night, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County athletics department fired off another Tweet:

“BTW guys, we have a brand new $85 million Event Center we opened up last month that still doesn't have a corporate sponsor name. ...”

It was another cheeky message from an account that has gained national attention — and tens of thousands of followers — in the wake of the Retrievers’ historic upset of the top-ranked University of Virginia Friday in the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. But it also reflected a real desire to capitalize on a moment that could be transformative for the school’s financial and academic future.

“I’m happy that so many people are Googling us,” Angela Scott said. The 1999 graduate, a civil rights attorney who lives in Columbia, says she long ago gave up trying to explain to people what the university is. But after the basketball team’s shocking March Madness victory, she expects a lot more people will know.

“Our grads are doing great things,” she said. “I don’t think enough people knew about our greatness, or our grit.”

The Retrievers’ magical run came to an abrupt end Sunday night, 48 hours after it began, with a second-round loss to Kansas State. But in one important sense, UMBC had already won.

For a university long considered something of a well-kept secret — lauded in academic circles, where it is known for producing more African-American MD-Ph.D. graduates than any other in the nation, but with little reputation among the general public — analysts said the win could be a turning point for the school, bringing more attention, more out-of-state applications and more fundraising.

“I think if they’re aggressive and smart they could really make a significant dent here,” said Darren Rovell, a business reporter for ESPN.

UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III spoke Sunday of leveraging the sudden attention for sports to strengthen the school academically.

“What this amazing history-making event has done is have the whole world saying, ‘Who is this young campus?’ ” he said before Sunday’s game. He wants people to know: “That kind of grit is exactly what we have on the academic side.”

Academically, UMBC is known for producing graduates in the sciences and engineering. Hrabowski touts leaders at Johns Hopkins and Harvard who have degrees from UMBC. In December, the school celebrated its first Rhodes scholar.

“Few people know that we were last year’s cybersecurity champions,” he said. “We’re a nerdy campus.”

Apex Marketing Group, a branding consultant firm, estimated the value in advertising of UMBC’s sudden national exposure in television, print and Internet impressions to be in the range of $33 million.

At Florida Gulf Coast University a few years ago, officials say, sudden basketball notoriety turned out to be worth many times that.

In 2013, the school’s No. 15 seed basketball team scored consecutive upsets over Georgetown and San Diego State University to reach that year’s Sweet Sixteen. Christopher Simoneau, the university’s vice president of advancement, estimated the benefit to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Fort Meyers school, little known beyond Florida, suddenly found itself in the national spotlight. Annual donations rose from an average of $15 million per year to $27 million, Simoneau said. Out-of-state applications increased 80 percent. The school was able to raise ticket prices. FGCU gear flew off the shelves.

“We had no way to ramp up production as fast as we needed to,” he said.

On Sunday, the UMBC Bookstore awaited a new shipment of custom gear to commemorate the big win: “We Made History” and “All Bark and All Bite.” Purchases in-store and online were surging.

The school is on spring break, but the bookstore opened Sunday especially for the occasion, bringing in extra staff from other departments, volunteers and student workers who wanted to come back to campus.

From the end of the game Friday to Sunday morning, the store received about 3,500 online orders — almost as many as the total for the entire previous year.

Scott, the lawyer from Columbia, visited the campus in search of gear.

“I didn’t know we had a basketball team,” she said. “I knew we had a chess team. I was on the Model UN team.”

Julie and Jason Sharp left the campus with $310.45 in merchandise.

The Baltimore couple met 15 years ago as fellows in the Peaceworker Program at the Shriver Center for returned Peace Corps volunteers. Julie Sharp said she called three Targets to try to find a place selling UMBC merchandise with no luck before learning that the university bookstore would be open.

Jason Sharp said the first-round win was about much more than basketball. He was thrilled to see the national coverage for UMBC’s academic standards, and for Hrabowski, who, to many, is synonymous with the university.

“The athletic accomplishment is going in the sports history books, but I think it’s more exciting to see that outside of this area, people are talking about Hrabowski and the science,” Sharp said. “It takes a basketball game, I guess, but now it’s on the map.”

Later Sunday, the school opened three viewing areas where people could watch the game. Students, staff and alumni arrived to find by a spread that included black and yellow jelly beans and cookies with Retriever faces on them.

“This is great,” alumnus Gerald Conwell said. Conwell’s bracket was done for — he’d had Virginia beating his own alma mater. But he wasn’t disappointed.

“It’s a big deal,” he said. “Every game they win from now on will be a record too.”

University spokeswoman Lisa Achkin said school spirit has taken some time to build at UMBC — but she believes investments such as the school’s new event center have paid off in solidifying their “scrappy community.”

“Our slogan is ‘grit and greatness,’ ” she said. When the team found out they would be going up against Virginia, she said, “they were not at all intimidated. That is true of UMBC in everything we do.”

As the game wore on, the crowd barked and twirled yellow bandannas. Each Kansas State score brought groans and curses. If the players in Charlotte couldn’t actually hear their fans in Catonsville chant and cheer, the students and alumni gathered at UMBC’s campus didn’t seem to notice.

Alumna Janette Choi, 39, sat on the edge of her barstool. The apparent ease of Friday’s win seemed gone. When the ball headed toward the basket, she said, “You’re hoping and praying it goes in.”

UMBC senior Omar Jobe whistled.

“I expected more,” he said. But “it’s basketball. Anything can happen.”

Rovell said the school’s grounding in academics will help it at as it handles its newfound fame.

“It’s better they’re a school that has an identity rather than a fill-in-the-blank school,” he said. “The goods have to be there. I think that gives UMBC, all things being equal, a better chance to cash on this.”

And UMBC isn’t the only winner.

“Every game they play, it gets more value for Under Armour,” said Eric Smallwood, a managing partner with the Apex Marketing Group. That should put them in a better position to re-negotiate their contact with the company.

Under Armour endorser Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors sent swag to the team in advance of Sunday night’s matchup.

UMBC’s games could get more airtime on ESPN now, says Smallwood — which will boost the profile of any of their corporate sponsors.

“This may help push the naming rights for the new venue,” he said. “The timing is perfect.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Colin Campbell and Brian Compere contributed to this article.

ywenger@baltsun.com

twitter.com/yvonnewenger

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