UMBC: A Social Media Cinderella Story

In a time of the year defined by the improbable, this was a brand new level. March Madness taken to its absolute apex: the 16-seed (lowest seed in the tournament) had finally triumphed over the 1-seed. And not just any 1-seed, but the overall top seed in the whole bracket, the mighty University of Virginia Cavaliers. Ever since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, this was a possibility that seemed statistically inevitable, but no 16-seed team had ever actually achieved that elusive victory in a whopping 135 matchups. But finally, the gods of the underdog had their champion, and it couldn’t be a more unlikely source: a school known more for excellence in chess than basketball, University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Days after that magical game, fans and experts alike are calling it the biggest upset in college basketball history, and one of the biggest upsets in the history of sports, period. For 48 hours, the UMBC Retrievers captivated and inspired a nation full of fans, and nowhere was their rallying cry more visible than on social media. In my presentation I talked about how social media has made it easier than ever for fans to emotionally connect with the stories behind the basketball, and UMBC serves as a perfect case study for this phenomenon.

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The UMBC athletics Twitter page opened the morning of March 16th with around 5,000 Twitter followers. Today, March 19th, UMBC is over 100,000 followers. How did this happen? It took a mixture of underdog magic and some savvy Twitter usage. It’s not often you see the social media manager of college Twitter account becoming a minor celebrity and getting his own New York Times article, but that is exactly what has happened to Zach Seidel (pictured below), the man with the enthusiasm (and attitude) to turn a memorable sporting event into a genuine social media phenomenon. Embracing the underdog role, Seidel tweeted before the game about the absurdly low odds projections were giving UMBC to win, and kept on the attack as the margin of victory grew, even targeting a specific ESPN analyst, Seth Davis, who had already penciled in UVA as the victor. This friendly, but spirited, banter proved the perfect complement to the David vs. Goliath story viewed around the country, allowing fans (devoted UMBC fans or just happy observers) to celebrate the excitement with an added social media victory lap. With social media, observers around the world got to feel like they were celebrating something historic with the very team that was making history. Fans could watch the game on their platform of choice and supplement it with some good-old-fashioned trash talk.

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Of course, since this is social media, jokes and memes were shared right alongside the joyous score updates. The mascot of UMBC is the Chesapeake Bay retriever, and if there’s anything you can count on the Internet for, it’s providing excuses for people to post pictures of their pets. Probably the most lasting joke from the night was people posting pictures of their dogs watching the UMBC “Retrievers”, rooting their canine brethren on to victory. These posts garnered hundreds of favorites and retweets, and UMBC capitalized by egging on the fun.

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The immediate impact of the March Madness run on UMBC’s national profile is obvious. Although their run came to a sad end this Sunday against Kansas State (in another valiant, Twitter-igniting effort), UMBC is forever etched in college basketball lore, and the school as a whole is likely to benefit as a result. Ironically, it has been coined the “Flutie Effect”: after Doug Flutie’s improbable Hail Mary win for Boston College against University of Miami in 1984, applications to BC jumped significantly. In the recent college basketball world, little known Florida Gulf Coast’s improbable 2013 run to the Sweet 16 lead to a rise in total applications by 36% and in out-of-state applications by 41%. Following their exciting victories against powerhouse Georgetown and San Diego State, they rebranded themselves “#DunkCity”, a nickname that they carry to this day on their social media platforms. Social media is such a valuable marketing tool for these schools, and whereas in the past it might be a bit harder to retain the luster of a notable victory, with Twitter and Facebook it is far easier to remain in the public eye. It’s a balance for sure, as you don’t want to appear to overly married to “glory days”, but with a savvy eye, there’s no better (or cost-effective) advertising.

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It sure looks like UMBC is going to capitalize on this victory, and who could blame them? They’ve already filed a copyrighted for “16 over 1” and “Retriever Nation”. If you want to be cynical, you can say it’s a cash grab that detracts from the genuine joy and inspiration of the victory. But really, it’s hard to fault the school. Opportunities for this sort of exposure don’t come around too often, and in the end the gains can benefit the whole study body. And no matter what happens, the moment itself is preserved. The joy experienced that night by “Retriever Nation” was genuine, and social media helped that joy reached heights never before possible. That spontaneity and authenticity that I talked about in my presentation, what March is really about, was never more evident than in the final moments of that unlikely win, playing out on the court in Charlotte and on Twitter feeds alike. Sometime, years from now, there will be another impossible victor that will send social media into a frenzy. And when that time comes, we’ll look back at UMBC as gold standard for what March Madness can be.

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Sources:

https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/18/us/umbc-ncaa-twitter-trnd/index.html

http://www.baltimoresun.com/features/pets/bs-md-umbc-good-boys-20180319-story.html

http://www.baltimoresun.com/sports/college/basketball/bs-sp-umbc-odom-ncaa-0318-story.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flutie_effect

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/17/sports/ncaabasketball/umbc-twitter.html

http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/pets/ct-chesapeake-bay-retrievers-umbc-20180319-story.html

http://www.baltimoresun.com/features/pets/bs-md-umbc-good-boys-20180319-story.html

https://www.theringer.com/march-madness/2018/3/19/17139666/umbc-virginia-upset-march-madness-legacy

6 comments

  1. Hi Ray,

    Really happy you delved into this topic as I happened to start following UMBC’s twitter after the game and wound up reading all the savagery that is Zach Seidel. It’s a beautiful thing when an underdog can perform any kind of upset, let alone when it’s a #1 seed. I do find it interesting that UMBC was so quick to register certain trademarks, and whether a commuter school will benefit from the “flutie effect” as much as non-commuters school such as BC.
    Do you personally think that UMBC would have become so popular on twitter had the account remained mundane and factual rather than taking on it’s own personality? And how long do you think someone like Zach will wind up staying at UMBC before attempting to capitalize on personal popularity for a better job?
    It’ll definitely be interesting to see how this all plays out.

  2. As someone who grew u in Maryland, I was really happy to see someone post about this. Obviously, the UMBC win was a very exciting event for people of Maryland, so I wasn’t sure if that was the only reason why my social media feeds were blowing up with posts about the upset. It is funny because many people outside of the state have never heard of it, they only know of the University of Maryland, the Naval Academy, or MAYBE even Towson.

    So, I definitely agree that you can’t blame UMBC for taking advantage of this moment of fame. It is a commuter school, so people in Maryland can be pretty condescending towards people who go there, but it’s only because people know nothing about it and it seems like a back up school because it is “University of Maryland – Baltimore County” rather than just “University of Maryland.” It’s pretty dumb. I’m glad to see that the person who operates their Twitter hasn’t held back on dissing people who didn’t believe in the school.

  3. Great post Ray. As I was reading it, I couldn’t help but think of how George Mason could have capitalized on their Final Four run in 2006. I think that UMBC’s social media prowess this weekend is an over the top example of something that every sports team (professional or collegiate) is trying to do in the social media age: seize the moment of success. Taking my beloved New England Patriots for example, at the beginning of every postseason, the team unveils some sort of hashtag that it uses on all of their accounts as the rallying cry on the road to the Super Bowl. The team plasters the slogan on everything, from the team bus to rally towels it hands out to fans at the games. This past year, this slogan was #NotDone. Last year, it was #OneMore. They don’t have to be mind blowing catch phrases, they just need to get the point across and get the fans pumped up in the process.

    In terms of where UMBC goes from here, I do wonder exactly what the ceiling is for what the school can do with their success. It might lead to more applications as Ray alluded to, or maybe it might lead to more highly touted recruits coming to play basketball. But let’s think of Florida Gulf Coast, since it is the closest example we have to what has just happened. Yes, we still refer to FGCU as #DunkCity, but we do we really talk about them at any point of the college basketball season besides the opening days of the tournament in March when pregame shows are revisiting historic upsets? I think it is a tall task for UMBC to take 48 hours of fame and transform it into something people will think of outside of March.

  4. Ray, I was hoping someone would write about this. A high school teammate of mine plays for UMBC so I had a sense of who they were coming in, but nobody can say they expected this massive victory. The UMBC victory generated bookstore sales in 24 hours that matched their sales from the whole year up to that point. I am interested to see how it affects school applications. Everyone loves good Cinderella stories, in both the pros and college. One example from the pros I remember as a Knicks fan is Jeremy Lin. My dad lined up around the block by the NBA store just to get my brother and I jerseys. It was such an exciting time, and the Knicks and Lin made good money off of this. Where am I going with this? Well, this makes me wonder how it is fair that NCAA athletes don’t benefit monetarily from this success. This could be a great blog topic, but it makes you question how the players cannot benefit from the success that would not be there without them.

    I was thinking the same thing as @profgarbusm . In my opinion, Zach would be best riding out this fame and then looking to leverage that opportunity to go elsewhere. He was definitely given a great opportunity, but he absolutely nailed it.

  5. As an Eagle fan, I know all about the underdog. That being said, I was completely shocked when this happened. Not being around a TV or laptop, I found myself scrolling on Twitter to find out what exactly happened, as my phone blew up with notifications about the potential upset. 3 minutes later, there I saw myself scrolling through the UMBC Basketball twitter page, cracking up. The way that they embraced the underdog mentality was hilarious.

    I think that @danmiller315 brings up a very good point though. UMBC is now caught in this window of fame, what are they going to do with it. Will UMBC be able to capitalize on this moment and use it to improve their image as an university? Will the number of applications drastically increase this upcoming year? Will the ticket prices for home games next year go drastically up because they won one game? All of these questions need to be addressed by UMBC soon. They have a perfect chance to capitalize on this opportunity and bring their University to the next level, but the one thing that they do not want to do is not address this moment because if they do, they will fall back out of the spotlight quicker than sun sets in the winter.

  6. The beauty of March Madness! UMBC’s incredible tournament win is paying dividends for the school. Not only did the school bookstore sell out of apparel, it did so in just 24 hours after their big win. School officials mentioned that it sold more apparel in 1 day, than it had ever done in an entire year. Further, Steph Curry stepped into the action by providing the UMBC Men’s Basketball Team with Under Armour gear as well. The power of social media has captivated everyone’s attention on this great story.

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