Dunk City & Dollars: Florida Gulf Coast Bandwagon Means Big Bucks

A nation of fans is currently fascinated with an entire team—Florida Gulf Coast, the first No. 15 seed to ever make it to the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament. And the impact goes well beyond soaring team apparel sales.

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Michael Perez / AP

Florida Gulf Coast's Dajuan Graf, from left, Eddie Murray and Brett Comer celebrate after winning a third-round game against San Diego State in the NCAA college basketball tournament, on March 24, 2013, in Philadelphia. Fla.

Bringing new meaning to the term “fast fashion,” trendy sports fans are known to immediately need to get their hands on the jerseys of out-of-nowhere sensations like Colin Kaepernick and Jeremy Lin. A nation of fans is currently fascinated with an entire team—Florida Gulf Coast University, the first No. 15 seed ever to make it to the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA basketball tournament. And the impact goes well beyond soaring team apparel sales.

After FGCU scored an upset victory against No. 2 seed Georgetown in the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament, sales at the campus bookstore skyrocketed 1,000%, according to CNN Money. The store’s online unit then handled 500 apparel orders on Sunday, after FGCU’s win over San Diego State. On a normal Sunday, when the physical store is closed, its website does maybe 20 to 30 orders.

Stores throughout the Fort Myers area have rushed to fill aisles with FGCU merchandise, as consumers clamor for a piece of the team everyone is talking about. “Everyone jumps on a winner,” Lewis Hardy, CEO of the Licensing Resource Group, told CNN Money. “There are people wearing their stuff right now who may not even know where they are located.”

Interest in the team has expanded well beyond Florida. Earlier this week, the sports gear e-retailer Fanatics.com released a statement attesting to FGCU’s major leap in interest among fans nationwide:

Since the tournament began on Thursday, Florida Gulf Coast University has been the top-selling college and most searched school on Fanatics.com, one of the largest online retailers of officially licensed sports merchandise. FGCU gear has been purchased by fans in more than 40 states since Thursday, with the top state being Florida, of course.

(MORE: Madness for Sale: Businesses Go for a Piece of NCAA ‘March Madness’ Basketball Tournament)

Gamblers are drawn to FGCU as well. The team’s next game, a matchup on Friday night against University of Florida, which is favored by 13 points, is the hottest bet in Las Vegas, according to a Bloomberg News story:

“It has the most action of all the Sweet 16 games,” Mark Tutino, the race and sports supervisor at Caesars Palace, said of the all-Florida matchup. “There are probably 5-to-1 more tickets on Florida Gulf Coast than any other team. A lot of small stuff for sure, but there’s quite a few tickets on them.”

Despite that fact that basketball powerhouses like Indiana, Louisville, and Duke remain alive in the tournament, the most popular bet to win it all since making the Sweet 16 has been the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles. It probably helps that bettors were getting 100-1 odds as of Monday, which shifted to 60-1 more recently.

There’s even speculation that the success of FGCU could possibly improve the reputation and draw investment and visitors to its host city, Fort Myers. “A lot of people think this is Fort Misery,” one FGCU student told the Miami Herald. “But now we’re Dunk City.”

(MORE: Florida Gulf Coast Inspiring Swagger: The Darlings of March Madness)

That’s quickly become the nickname for Fort Myers, thanks to YouTube videos, Twitter mentions of #dunkcity, and ESPN highlights. Mayor Randall P. Henderson Jr., who says Fort Myers is “destined to become a college town,” even altered the city’s logo to include the phrase “Dunk City.”

The FGCU craze hasn’t spread merely because an underdog team won a couple of upset victories in the NCAA tournament. How they won the games—loads of exciting dunks and swagger, even when games were on the line and cautious play would have been more prudent—is arguably more noteworthy. The team is unbelievably entertaining, as TIME’s Sean Gregory explained in a post about FGCU’s emergence as the darlings of March Madness:

The game was great fun, for everyone not associated with San Diego State. Florida Gulf Coast’s players waved their arms constantly to pump up the crowd, serenaded their coach, Andy Enfield — who in his pre-coaching life helped start a software company which at one point was valued at more than $100 million (he still has a stake), and is married to a model — with chants of “Andy, Andy,” and generally treated basketball like a game. Not chess. Or church.

No matter how irreverent, unorthodox, and un-businesslike the team may seem, however, FGCU’s rapid leap to national recognition was planned carefully—with big dollar figures in mind. The school, writes Bloomberg’s Jonathan Mahler, “understands implicitly the crass commercial calculations that the NCAA promotes, against its own stated goals. FGCU recognized from the start that nothing would raise the young school’s profile like sports — men’s basketball in particular.”

(MORE: The Big Dance: NCAA Basketball Players Do Ballet)

That’s why FGCU pushed hard to build a $14 million arena, get Division I status, and hire a well-respected coach with a talent for recruiting. The results, so far, include two NCAA victories just 16 years after FGCU graduated its first students. And the results to come likely include millions of dollars in publicity, a sharp rise in student applications and donations to the university, and a much easier time for the basketball team to recruit new players. Compared to all of that, selling some T-shirts is peanuts.

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