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.
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.
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.
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.
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.