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Sunday, June 26, 2022

‘People just sent money in’: What happened after St Peter’s basketball fairytale? | College basketball

Take it from the president at Saint Peter’s himself: Life has not quite returned to normal at the tiny Jersey City university, whose basketball team stunned the sports world in March by becoming the first No 15 seed in history to reach the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight.

“This may sound crazy,” Eugene J Cornacchia tells the Guardian, referring to the student body, “but they seem to be walking with more confidence, more spring in their step.”

The most obvious effect was on the players, who went from competing in front of a few hundred fans to being broadcast to millions across America. “We generated a lot of publicity for our school,” Daryl Banks III, the Peacocks’ junior guard who transferred this week to St Bonaventure, said after the loss to North Carolina. “So it’s just going to help the school out in general. Caught the attention of everybody who wants to come here. I think just what we did will have an impact on everybody who knows about the school now.”

The unexpected injection of good vibrations was a wonderful aftereffect, of course, but, perhaps more important in the long-term, the school’s coffers have been given a big jolt, too – and not just because Saint Peter’s is selling more $22 Peacocks T-shirts at its online merchandise store.

More people are donating money to the school. Cornacchia has a juicy stat: Between 9 and 26 March 2021, a year before Saint Peter’s historic NCAA run, the university received 149 “gifts” totaling $475,000. In the same timeframe this year, as the Peacocks beat college basketball giants such as Kentucky and Purdue, the school received 414 gifts totaling $2.3m.

“I wish they could do this every year,” Cornacchia says, laughing.

He says, “A lot of people just sent money in – they didn’t designate it for anything.”

The Peacocks had to win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament just to qualify for the NCAA tournament, then were handed the 15th of 16 seeds in the East Regional and a first-round game against the No 2 seed, the eight-time national champions Kentucky (annual basketball budget: $20m).

“This is St Peter’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011, where it lost to Purdue by 22 points as a No 13 seed,” Yahoo Sports sniffed before the Kentucky game. “Don’t expect a better showing this time around.”

Well, the Peacocks beat Kentucky (student body: 30,500) in overtime, then eliminated Murray State (student body: 9,500) and the No 3 seed, Purdue (student body: 50,000), before falling to North Carolina, who went on to reach the tournament final. As a result, the Peacocks won over a lot of fans, and not just locally.

According to the university, its licensing partner – which sells school merchandise – reported more than $300,000 in sales in the two weeks after the Peacocks upset Kentucky. In the first eight months of the fiscal year, which started last July, the school’s licensing partner reported $58,813 in sales.

Saint Peter’s marked $47,000 in sales on campus from 17-24 March, with $15,000 in merchandise sold on 24 March, the day before the Purdue game, alone. These numbers overwhelm the $20,000 in similar sales on campus during the fall semester, from September to December.

During the weekend of 19 March (just after the team shocked Kentucky), Trevco, which sells sports merchandise on Amazon, told the school that Saint Peter’s was its top selling institution with over $40,000 in sales.

“Whether people will continue to wear them down the line, I don’t know,” Cornacchia said of the merchandise bonanza. “But I hope so.”

Additionally, word about Saint Peter’s has spread. The attention the school received on so-called “free media” was estimated to be worth between $125m and $150m, Cornacchia says. During the week of 12 March, search terms for Saint Peter’s on Amazon were comparable to the biggest college football teams in the run-up to their seasons. A week later they were comparable to Alabama, a football team that generates $95m a year in revenue. Those who just happened to catch a Peacocks’ game tended to like what they saw.

Peacocks fans get ready for a game at this year’s NCAA tournament
Peacocks fans get ready for a game at this year’s NCAA tournament. Photograph: Paul Zimmerman/Rex/Shutterstock

Cornacchia tells the story of watching the Peacocks play Murray State in Indianapolis. Some non-Peacocks fans found seats in front of Cornacchia and were soon talking about how impressed they were with Saint Peter’s. Cornacchia introduced himself. A pleasant conversation followed, and one of the fans promised Cornacchia that he would write a check to the school for $2,800. “I have no idea why he came up with that amount,” Cornacchia says.

He says Saint Peter’s alumni have “been electrified by this moment.” Despite its location in the New York metropolitan area, the school was not that well known before the tournament, even among high school basketball players who wanted to play in college.

Cornacchia says an alumni reception was held recently in Bergen county, about 20 miles north of Jersey City. An event like that usually draws 25 to 30 people, he said. This one drew more than 70.

Exactly how all of the fanfare boosts applications and enrollment won’t become clear until a year or two from now, Cornacchia says, although the school’s international graduate business program has attracted additional interest from Japan, Italy and India.

“Nothing we can do, barring the Nobel Prize for something amazing medically, gets the attention this does,” he says.

Prior to this season, Saint Peter’s with a gift from a major donor had renovated its drab and outdated 3,200-seat gymnasium into a bright facility called the Run Baby Run Arena, named after the 1968 Saint Peter’s team that upset Duke in the National Invitation Tournament. Some donations may be earmarked to update the Yanitelli Center, which surrounds the arena. It is likely donations will also go to non-sports facilities although the school has not broken down its exact spending plans.

There have been losses though. To no one’s surprise Shaheen Holloway, the coach who masterminded Saints Peter’s run, left the school a day after the Peacocks lost to North Carolina. Holloway took the head coaching job 11 miles away at Seton Hall, a Big East Conference school (with a larger athletic budget) at which Holloway played and graduated. But Saint Peter’s was on guard. On April 12, the school hired Bashir Mason, a Jersey City native who was coaching at Wagner College on nearby Staten Island, to replace Holloway. Mason is just 38, and he coached Wagner to within one victory of the 2022 NCAA tournament.

The tournament has also built unexpected connections. Cornacchia says he received an email from the president of Oral Roberts University, William Wilson, congratulating the school on the run and inviting him to give him a call when the tournament was over.

Oral Roberts, a 4,000-student Evangelical institution in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was the Cinderella team in the 2021 NCAA tournament, also entering as a No 15 seed before upsetting No 2 Ohio State and No 7 Florida to make it to the Sweet 16. ORU lost in the Elite Eight to Arkansas – on a basket with three seconds left. The Peacocks would win that round in 2022.

“It was interesting,” Cornacchia says of his conversation with Wilson. “His take was that this is a special moment – but don’t lose sight of the fact that it doesn’t last forever – unless you invest in it.”

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