On Thursday night, Loyola University Chicago and its alumni across the country will tune in to see if their beloved Ramblers and Sister Jean can extend their improbable run in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
Behind the scenes, another major opportunity looms.
Loyola's leaders are working furiously to parlay the crush of attention into sustained interest in one of the largest Jesuit universities in the country.
Already at this compact campus nestled along the lake in Rogers Park, new visitors to the university's website have surged; development officers are fielding inquiries from potential donors; and graduates are congregating for watch parties and taking to social media to share their pride.
And university officials don't want it to end there. A successful marketing strategy must not revolve around basketball or any individual program, experts say. Rather, school leaders must get the word out about the entire Loyola University package to attract students and to galvanize donors and alums in the long term, regardless of how the sports teams are performing.
The timing of the basketball team's success is ideal, said John Drevs, Loyola's director of web marketing. High school students are visiting the campus this month during spring break and the deposit deadline to reserve a spot in the fall undergraduate class is May 1.
"The bottom line is it gives the university a chance to tell its story in a very broad, public way," said Robert E. Baker, a professor at George Mason University, which had a fairy-tale run to the Final Four in 2006. "It's been said athletics can be the front porch of the university. Hopefully if you get that exposure through athletics, you can open the front door and let people inside."
Even before the big dance, Loyola leaders saw interest piquing. The Ramblers logged a 28-5 regular season record and easily beat the Illinois State Redbirds to win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament and earn their first NCAA tournament berth in 33 years.
"We had decent attendance at games in the past, but you could see this increase in attendance and people being excited about what the team was up to," said Damon Cates, senior vice president for university advancement. "The momentum, the camaraderie and the esprit de corps among the team was palpable."
Interest surged once Loyola upset Miami in a buzzer-beater in the first round. Drevs said new visitors to luc.edu jumped 315 percent during Saturday's 63-62 thriller over Tennessee. Many were drawn to the site to learn more about the team and Sister Jean, a 98-year-old nun who offers spiritual guidance to the team and has gained widespread attention. But visits to the undergraduate admissions page also jumped by nearly 50 percent.
Now, the challenge is to translate that interest into applications.
"It may not affect the number of people in the classes this year, but it puts Loyola on the list of colleges being considered," Drevs said.
Loyola is just the latest university hoping to cash in on athletic success.
College marketers and consultants have a term for it — the "Flutie effect," named for the impact that Doug Flutie's game-winning heroics for Boston College in 1984 had on the university. Two years following the game, applications rose about 30 percent, according to a Harvard Business School study.
And around that time, Patrick Ewing was transforming the fortunes of Georgetown University.
Before his arrival in 1981, the Hoyas had been a successful, if not standout, basketball team under Coach John Thompson. But after Ewing's dominant play led the Hoyas to three appearances in the national championship game in four years, including one title, high school seniors from around the country began to take notice. Applications to Georgetown surged 45 percent from 1983 to 1986, according to the Harvard Business School study.
If any university provides a model for Loyola, it's George Mason, an under-the-radar school in Virginia not known for its basketball prowess. Like Loyola, the George Mason Patriots were an 11th seed in 2006 as they pulled upset after upset on their way to the Final Four.
The university quickly began reaping benefits from the team's success, said Baker, who also heads the university's Center for Sport Management. The university blew well past its capital fundraising campaign goal. Merchandise sales at the campus bookstore the month of the tournament reached $800,000, more than the entirety of the previous school year. The number of active alums jumped 25 percent. The year after George Mason reached the Final Four, freshman applications climbed 22 percent and out-of-state applications increased by 54 percent, Baker said.
The Fairfax, Va., campus has continued to grow, data show. Enrollment climbed from 29,856 in 2006 to 36,297 in 2017, according to university statistics.
On media coverage alone, the benefit schools receive is astronomical.
Baker estimated the print and broadcast exposure from George Mason's Final Four appearance equated to about $677.5 million. A 2003 study showed that the value of the 1999 Elite Eight run for Gonzaga University, another Jesuit institution in Spokane, Wash., was about $37.8 million.
"Sport has a power," Baker said. "It's a common language that everyone can speak. Success can allow you to get a really broad recognition. It's one of the very unique opportunities that universities have."
At Loyola, alumni throughout the country are rallying around their team — and thinking about their alma mater, contacting classmates, talking about Loyola.
"We got multiple requests from local alumni to organize a watch party for last Saturday's game, and pulled together a last-minute gathering," said Rebecca Stolz, a 2006 graduate who helps lead the LUC chapter in Los Angeles. "Those who couldn't attend in person found other ways to follow, and emailed/texted/posted on Facebook right after we won. I got texts from an alumni friend in San Francisco during and after the game."
John Paul Siemborski, another 2006 graduate who heads the Cleveland alumni chapter, found Loyola alumni gathering to watch the games in Miami and in the Bahamas during a recent vacation.
"This experience not only energizes the city of Chicago, which I love, but every city where alumni reside," Siemborski said.
Cates said Loyola leaders do not necessarily have specific targets for engagement and fundraising in place, nor does it really matter how the Ramblers fare in the tournament from this point. The climactic success Loyola basketball has achieved in one week is enough of an opening to change the university's trajectory.
"We're trying to change the dialogue on the national scene about what it means to be a student athlete," Cates said. "Continuing to market that message and push that out we believe will help to attract student-athletes that want to be a part of that kind of team and also those kinds of students who realize that's the kind of place Loyola is."