Cinderellas punch PR ticket to Big Dance
March Madness brings out the competitor in all of us – from Championship Week to Selection Sunday to the Final Four, there is nothing quite like the culture and entertainment provided by a few straight weeks of non-stop college basketball.
As a PR pro and sports enthusiast, my favorite part of the madness is the extra spark of magic found in Cinderella teams. Every year, some small conference team runs with the big boys and gives us a treasured upset over a national powerhouse. As fans, we immediately latch on to this team and find ourselves hooked on the emotion and pure passion exuded in every play, every game. Toss aside the carefully selected bracket, who doesn’t enjoy seeing the likes of Duke dominated in a first-round game?
As PR pros, we love the story of a darkhorse defying the odds and taking out the established leader, much like we thrive on the challenge of positioning our clients to disrupt the industry to become the next big thing. We live for our own Cinderella teams with our start-up clients, challenging big brands with innovation and fresh ideas. In our role as PR strategists, it’s our job to tell the story to make a case for these clients to be considered among the ranks of the corporate world, just like the NCAA tournament hopefuls prove their worth to the selection committee and college basketball as a whole.
Cinderella stories are more than just living in the moment of madness, fighting for that next win in the hallowed tournament. Take a look at Butler, who bullied its way to the national championship in 2010 after barely squeaking into the tournament as an auto-bid in the Horizon League conference. Three years later, Butler is a respected, established basketball program with a tremendous staff lead by (now) widely sought after Brad Stevens. Its Cinderella story gave the school the PR boost it needed to establish itself as a legitimate program and to shine some positive light on the small university from an academic standpoint.
A few years ago I wore the glass slipper in my own Cinderella story of sorts. Penn State basketball entered the 2011 Big Ten Tournament as a slighted underdog, predicted to fall in its first game and end any hopes of an NCAA Tournament bid. But this team battled – literally, with star Big Ten point
guard Talor Battle at the helm – and Cinderella-ed its way into the conference championship game, hence punching its own ticket to the Big Dance. As a fan, I experience the PR side of this run as well – with every victory over Big Ten powerhouses Wisconsin and Michigan State, the media slowly started to notice the small group of student fans supporting the team from the upper rafters. National media triumphed the team’s success throughout the tournament, Selection Sunday and all the way to the Big Dance. Years later, the momentum from this storybook season attracted the leadership of a bold new coach and a competitive lineup of top recruits slated to join the program within the year. This positive PR pushed Penn State to a new level as a college hoops program,
positioning them to compete with the big guys like National Championship runner up Michigan and Elite Eight contender Ohio State.
So who was this year’s Cinderella story? Depends on how you classify a Cinderella. My vote goes to tournament newbie 15-seed Florida Gulf Coast University, whose highlight-reel-fueled domination to the Sweet Sixteen resulted in its homebase of Fort Myers, Fla., officially rebranding itself as #DunkCity for the duration of the tournament. Gotta love the power of social media! On the
other side of the bracket, nine-seed Wichita State shocked the nation, and all of Kansas, by bullying its way into the Final Four while its cross-state rival Rock Chalk Jayhawked from their own living rooms rather than the big stage. The National Championship game itself gave eager viewers three final Cinderella-inspired tales – the Louisville Cardinals brotherhood playing for fallen warrior Kevin Ware; MVP of the Louisville bench Luke Hancock’s emotionally-fueled performance as his gravely ill father watched on; Michigan no-namer Spike Albrecht rising to the occasion to score a career-high 17 first half points in place of foul-troubled Naismith Player of the Year Trey Burke. Cinderella didn’t just show up to the ball this year, she owned the floor at the Big Dance.
From a PR pro perspective, what do you consider when championing clients to become their own Cinderella story?