Cinderella teams on the rise, mega athletes unleashed and hours upon hours of great college hoops – March has certainly lived up to its annual madness thus far, and we’re just getting started. As the NCAA Tournament sets the stage for its Sweet Sixteen round of play this week, quite a few compelling story lines have emerged as both national media and household favorites. March Madness is simply an extra magical time of year, and the college hoops nerd and PR pro sides of me thrive on seeing these different story lines play out over the course of the post-season.
In the PR industry, we’re trained to pinpoint our clients’ key differentiators and, as storytellers in a digital world, we turn those proof points into relatable nuggets for reporters and consumers alike. We know that it takes more than a solid product – or a perfect season – to become a true champion, and we know that it takes a special kind of playbook to cut through the noise of a crowded industry (or field of 68 teams).
Now that my bracket is busted, here are the story lines I’m rooting for this post-season:
Cinderellas – Media’s New Darlings
It happens every year – an unsuspecting, low-seeded school bursts a perennial powerhouse’s championship aspirations in the round of 64, an upset that rocks our office pools yet defines what this madness is all about. History held true last week, with Cinderellas like the 11-seed Dayton Flyers and the 14-seed Mercer Bears resulted in a one-and-done tournament demise for big name teams like 6-seed Ohio State and 3-seed Duke (and two successful upset picks for yours truly). Dayton proved itself again with a victory over once-top ranked Syracuse, while its next opponent, 10-seed Stanford, knocked off the highly touted Kansas Jayhawks to advance. Not to forget 11-seed Tennessee, who battled its way into the round of 64 off an overtime victory play-in game and hasn’t stopped since. The Sweet Sixteen field is full of underdog hopefuls, with six of the remaining teams a 5-seed or lower, three of which are a 10-seed or lower. Heading into the Sweet Sixteen, fans find themselves championing for these unlikely heroes to keep our Cinderella hopes high.
Michigan State’s Sixth Man: Eight-year-old Lacey Holsworth
Affectionately known as “Princess Lacey” to her 11,000+ Twitter followers, Spartan fan Lacey Holsworth stole the hearts of fans across the country this tournament season with her passion for the game and largely publicized heroic battle with neuroblastoma, an aggressive form of childhood cancer. Do yourself a favor and read about her inspiring bond with Michigan State’s star senior forward Adreian Payne.
Sure, the 4-seed Spartans knocked off their first two tournament opponents in impressive fashion. But the real champion here is Lacey, who helped her “big brothers” cut down the Big Ten tournament nets in Indianapolis this month and will undoubtedly be ready to do the same at the national championship in a few weeks.
Battle for the Bluegrass
The NCAA Selection Committee had a little fun with this one –seeding big time in-state Kentucky rivals for a potential Sweet Sixteen matchup, but one that could only happen with a few upsets along the way. And alas, the basketball gods have rewarded us with a mid-tournament matchup that is sure to be of national championship caliber. Kentucky is on the rise after a pretty poor seeding, solidifying their respect with a victory over previously undefeated 1-seed Wichita State. On the flip-side, Louisville is defending their own national championship victory with their eyes set on a repeat performance. With a game site a relatively short three hour drive up the road in Indianapolis, we’re in for a real treat as the idea of home court advantage is redefined. Cue the media engines to be in full force to hype up this historic meeting.
Kentucky. Louisville. Indy. Kevin Ware injury site. Sweet 16. The other 49 states would like to edge into this tourney story…
— Dana O’Neil (@ESPNDanaOneil) March 23, 2014
And the madness wouldn’t be complete without some PR blunders along the way:
Media Training, Anyone?
PR pros understand that the hot seat can be overwhelming, which is why we’re around to help iron out messaging and position spokespeople as the thoughtful leaders they are. Kansas guards Andrew Wiggins and Wayne Selden Jr. could have used some basic media training this post-season, as they delivered a cringe worthy press conference prior to their matchup against Stanford. Giggles, whispers and “hmms” are typically not the best way to answer that hardball question from a reporter, right? Their bumbled response was interpreted as a lack of respect by Stanford’s leading scorer Chasson Randle, who used the comments as fuel to earn a Sweet Sixteen bid over Kansas and score a media relations win in my book with a tactful, but pointed response at the post-game press conference.
No Such Thing as “Off the Record”
As many PR pros have learned the hard way, anything a client says can and will be used as official comment, as there is truly no such thing as “off the record.” Elite college basketball coaches should consider following this same rule of thumb, particularly when arguing – err – discussing any given officiating call with referees during games. Nebraska coach Tim Miles learned this the hard way during his team’s first NCAA appearance in 16 years, where his off-message conversation resulted in his ejection early in the second half. My condolences go to his media team for the image repair on that damage in the aftermath.
What story line are you rooting for this NCAA tournament?
What PR blunders made you cringe in the madness?
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