VCU and Richmond assess the value of a moment in the spotlight

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Print this page by Robert Powell

Is VCU now the new “George Mason”? When GMU made its improbable journey to the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four in 2006, its name became shorthand for the ultimate underdog, whether it was a horse in the Kentucky Derby or the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the Major League Baseball playoffs.

As Alan Merten, George Mason’s president, observes: “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”  When sportswriters invoked the name of George Mason in any contest involving an unlikely contender, they frequently called Merten for a quote, offering him a chance to reach a new audience.

GMU may not be ready to surrender the keys to the lexicon to VCU, but it is safe to say that VCU will never quite be the same after its own run to the Final Four. The university and its hometown still are assessing the economic ripple effects of that time in the national spotlight. 

One immediate effect of the Rams’ success is clear. It resulted in a ton of money for the VCU athletic department. The athletic fund will get an extra $400,000 in NCAA money for each year for the next four years, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. That kind of nest egg might make a difference in VCU’s deliberations about adding another money-generating (but heavy spending) sport, football. The school already is lobbying Richmond not to tear down a city-owned stadium to make room for a proposed development.

The national exposure and good vibes generated by the basketball team also likely will have an effect on VCU’s pool of applicants. George Mason’s Final Four appearance contributed to a flood of applicants in recent years, allowing the school to be more selective. GMU last year had 16,500 applicants for 2,800 freshman slots. By contrast, the school had 6,000 applications for 2,500 spots when Merten came to GMU in 1996. 

VCU’s Final Four run also should aid fundraising just as George Mason’s success did in 2006. People with even a remote connection to VCU were swarming the campus bookstore to snap up commemorative T-shirts. That surge of alumni loyalty should pay off in the next annual campaign.

VCU also likely has changed its standing in the pecking order of state universities among that other group that shoots and passes each winter in downtown Richmond, the General Assembly. Gov. Bob McDonnell in particular will have to find another whipping boy when he wants to make an issue of the rising cost of state tuition. He tried to penalize VCU for a 24 percent tuition hike last year by withholding $17 million in state funds for the university in his proposed budget. The legislature ultimately restored the money.

To show he held no ill feelings, the governor made a congratulatory phone call on the Sunday afternoon that the Rams defeated Kansas to get to the Final Four. His press office distributed a photo of the casually dressed governor on the phone. The only problem was he was wearing a Notre Dame University sweatshirt on a day when everyone else downtown but the police was wearing VCU gold and black.

But will VCU’s national exposure help the Richmond area? Gerald Gordon, the president and CEO of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, says that GMU’s Final Four appearance increased the county’s visibility. That may be true, but I have to raise a question: Connecticut has won three NCAA men’s basketball championships and six women’s basketball champions since 1999. Can you tell me the name of the university’s hometown? It’s Storrs, a census area of about 15,000 that is part of Mansfield, Conn.

Nonetheless, the Richmond area appears to have been able to score a few PR points in the swirl of publicity surrounding March Madness. First it was able to tout the fact that both VCU and the University of Richmond reached the Sweet 16, earning the nickname “Hoopstown USA” for about a week. Also, a banner inviting ESPN commentator Dick Vitale to “Eat crow, Baby” for his early disparagement of VCU gained wide play, especially when Vitale volunteered to sign the banner and have it sold at auction for charity.

But I think the biggest coup for Richmond came unexpectedly in a friendly wager between Mayor Dwight Jones and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard. In what became known as the “Pennzoil vs. Picasso” bet, Jones offered two tickets to the international Picasso exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts plus a two-night stay at The Jefferson Hotel if Butler won. Ballard countered with two tickets to the 2011 Brickyard 400 and a two-night hotel stay, compliments of the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association, should VCU win.

Again, that is tickets to the only East Coast showing of a major international exhibit of Picasso’s personal art collection and a stay at a five-star hotel against the second-best-known auto race in Indianapolis. With all due respect to NASCAR fans, I don’t think Ballard matched the bet, and that means Richmond takes the PR pot. People hearing about the wager probably learned nothing new about Indianapolis. but Picasso in Richmond? What’s up with that?

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