The Economics of NKU’s Bid to the Big Dance

By Betsy Ross, Contributing Writer
Photos and video by Madison Schmidt

When the Northern Kentucky University men’s basketball team heard its name called on CBS’ NCAA Basketball Selection Sunday show this week, it was the culmination of a long journey that began in December of 2011. That’s when NKU announced it was moving from Division II athletics to Division I and entry into the Atlantic Sun Conference.

Never mind that NKU had enjoyed unprecedented athletic success in D-II, including a pair of national titles for women’s basketball, along with one national championship in men’s soccer—the school wanted more. And ‘more’ meant inclusion in the signature college post-season tournament, the NCAA men’s basketball championship. The team earned that slot by winning the Horizon League championship the week before.

Dr. Joe Cobbs, associate professor of sports business at NKU, arrived at the school just before the jump to Division I, so he’s seen what the move has meant not just to the athletic department, but to the university as a whole. 

“This (the NCAA bid) validates the tough decision to move to Division I,” he said during an interview at BB&T Arena, the home of the Norse. “Making the tournament and getting the publicity enables us to think there is some return on investment to what we put into athletics, beyond the individual student-athlete experience.” 

That return on investment can run into the tens of millions of dollars in national exposure, starting with Friday night’s prime-time game against one of the signature programs in college basketball, the University of Kentucky. Add on the number of times NKU will be mentioned in highlights and will be seen by the 40 million+ of us filling out brackets, and NKU soon becomes the talk of the tournament, and not just on the Highland Heights campus. 

“I know my students are already itching to talk about it (they were off on Spring Break last week) because they’ve been messaging me. People are more proud than they’ve ever been to be affiliated with NKU.” 

Which, coincidentally, dovetails into what Dr. Cobbs teaches in his sports business classes, including “Moneyball: The Economics of Sports” and “Rivalry and Ritual in International Sport.” “A lot of what I talk about is social identity and people attaching their identity to groups. Sports are a big part of that in our society and that’s why I think the matchup with Kentucky is especially interesting, because there are a lot of students here that are Kentucky Wildcat fans. This will make them take pride in the fact that hey, we’re playing in the same tournament, in the same game against them.” 

Sports business, sports administration and sports marketing majors have become the “it” field of study in recent years, just as journalism was a hot commodity in the 1970s after Watergate. 

Dr. Cobbs says the program at NKU tries to offer a broader base for students because it’s in the Haile/US Bank College of Business. 

“Our students are taking the business requirements before they even get to the sports based business classes. But we try to be pretty up front, that not all of them are likely going to end up working in sports. We keep the students’ minds open about the demand, and that potential jobs in sports go beyond Division I college athletics and professional teams. We say it’s a great program because you get that business background so you can look at advertising, marketing and finance.” 

While Dr. Cobbs may be known in the College of Business for his sports classes, he’s known around campus for his signature sartorial style. Specifically, his green shoes. And yes, there’s a story behind it.

“FUEL NKU is our on-campus food pantry, started three years ago. And the biggest issue they had when they started was not necessarily getting donations, but spreading the word to people on campus. And I said you know what, I’m going to wear green shoes the entire semester and call it “Green for Groceries.” And I’m going to donate a grocery item to FUEL for every day I teach in green shoes.

“So I did it for a semester and then I had a student who said, ‘Are you going to keep wearing green shoes? Because that’s how everybody knows you now. As Dr. Greenshoes.’ So this is the third year I’ve done it, and I keep donating to the FUEL pantry.” 

Just as Dr. Cobbs’ green shoes helps promote the food pantry, NKU’s entry into the NCAA tournament helps promote the university as a whole. Schools of similar size that have made the tournament in past years often see a jump in alumni giving and sales of school-branded spirit wear, as well as increases in admission applications, especially from high school students with higher GPAs who might not have considered NKU in the past. 

“Whether you agree with the emphasis we put on athletics in our society,” he said, “you can’t deny the fact that the emphasis is there. Because we have athletics tied to education and getting that awareness of the school out around athletics, it’s certainly going to help NKU as an educational institution.”