No long-term payoff for March Madness Cinderellas

Every year fans, of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament are on the lookout for the next "Cinderella story" of a small, usually obscure school that manages to slay some of the giants competing in "The Big Dance" -- and earn a few bucks for themselves along the way.

In 2013, it was Florida Gulf Coast University's turn to bask in the glow of media attention after the Eagles, who were nicknamed "Dunk City," upset better-known schools Georgetown and San Diego State before losing to home-state rival Florida in the Sweet 16. Though the Fort Myers, Florida, college hasn't turned into a pumpkin, it has noticed a drop-off in interest from its earlier peak.

According to a study it conducted, applications from prospective students jumped 29.9 percent during the 2013-2014 school year only to decline the following year. Wholesale sales of licensed merchandise such as athletic apparel soared 200 percent from 2012 to 2013. Those sales also dropped subsequently.

Indeed, FGCU didn't make the Tournament in 2014 and was relegated to the less prestigious NIT, where it lost in the first round to Florida State. But FGCU just made the cut for March Madness this year and faced North Carolina in Thursday's opening round -- and lost 83-67.

Referring to Cinderella schools, Victor Matheson, a sports economist at the College of the Holy Cross, said: "Their success on the court tends to be fairly fleeting. We usually don't see Cinderella coming back to the dance year after year and upsetting the high-ranked teams."

Since FGCU had its moment of athletic glory, it has made the most its opportunity. The college has raised $91 million of the $100 million that it had expected to reach by 2017. The school has also spruced up its campus and opened its Emergent Technologies Institute. How long these benefits will last, however, is difficult to say.

"There is insufficient evidence for more permanent long-term effects from isolated and ephemeral tournament flashes," wrote Vanderbilt University economist John Vrooman in an email.

George Mason was another Cinderella Story that captured the public's imagination after it made the Final Four in 2006. A study done by the Fairfax, Virginia, school at the time noted a decrease in student appointments for counseling at the height of March Madness, while fund-raising benefited.

However, George Mason hasn't made the tournament since 2011, and average attendance for basketball games has plummeted since then to 4,300 from 6,834, according to the school.

Some teams, such as Butler University and Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), have made the transformation from Cinderellas to contenders. Butler first attracted fans' attention in 1997 when it made the tournament for the first time since 1962. The Indianapolis school has been a regular participant since then, making it to the 2010 championship where it lost to Duke.

VCU shocked sports fans when it made the Final Four in 2011. It has appeared in the tournament in subsequent years, though it hasn't been able to duplicate its earlier success. Both universities are Final Four hopefuls this year.

Like other teams participating in the tournament, any financial success that FGCU, Butler and VCU score on the basketball court will be limited. The NCAA funnels tournament money through athletic conferences. Teams earn "units" that are valued at $265,791 for their conferences based on the number of games played. The NCAA, which picks up the expenses for teams in the tournament, encourages but does not require teams to dole out the money equally.

Most colleges do not earn a profit on athletics. An NCAA study found that in 2013 only 3 percent of men's basketball programs generated a surplus. No women's teams were profitable.

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.