As our nation began to emerge from the pandemic in early March, the eyes of the world were on Indianapolis. After a year of cancelations, quarantine bubbles, and sporting events held without spectators, the NCAA® selected Indy to host its Men’s Basketball Tournament—canceled just a year earlier as one of the first major events lost to COVID-19. The NCAA’s plan to host every game of the 68-team tournament in Indy over three weekends in front of the largest, yet still limited, crowds gathered since the beginning of the pandemic was a milestone in our “return to normalcy.”
When Butler University was first approached by the NCAA and City of Indianapolis about using Hinkle Fieldhouse as a venue for the tournament, there were naturally hesitations. The campus had essentially been on lockdown since the beginning of the academic year to help mitigate the spread of the virus. Classes that were held in-person had limited capacities, most campus events had been canceled or held remotely, limitations were placed on campus visitors, and students were undergoing regular surveillance testing. The policies and protocols were working: The percentages of students, faculty, and staff testing positive for COVID-19 were consistently lower than the positivity rates for Marion County and the state of Indiana. University officials were well aware that bringing the NCAA Tournament to Hinkle Fieldhouse could expose the Butler community to thousands of student-athletes, coaches, officials, administrators, and spectators, and could possibly undo all that had been accomplished to that point.
After multiple conversations with the NCAA, City of Indianapolis, Indiana Sports Corp, Visit Indy, and other host venues, Butler’s leadership team felt assured that Hinkle Fieldhouse could safely serve as a host venue with minimal risk to the health of the campus community. With the decision made to move forward as a host site, Butler’s Department of Athletics, Butler Arts and Events Center, the Office of Marketing and Communications, and other Butler stakeholders had less than two months to prepare for hosting 16 tournament games over two weekends—all while leveraging Butler’s participation in the tournament to maximize brand exposure to campus visitors and an international television audience.
With thousands of national reporters expected to descend upon the city despite the fact that only a couple dozen would be allowed to attend games due to capacity restrictions, the Marketing team recognized that those reporters would be hungry for content. A media outreach plan was developed, with a goal of generating positive impressions for Butler throughout the month. The media push kicked off March 1, when Butler Blue IV declared himself the Mayor of March. Acting as part host, part ambassador, part reporter, and part college hoops fanatic, Blue launched a media tour that dominated the local media’s tournament coverage leading up to Selection Sunday. Blue’s mayoral duties continued throughout the month, and his appearances at tree plantings, outside of arenas, and at parties downtown on Georgia Street continued to generate media attention and social media engagement.
To help solidify the connection with national reporters, Butler established a media hub on campus just a few hundred yards south of Hinkle Fieldhouse. Reporters from cities that had schools playing at Hinkle, as well as those without Hinkle credentials, were invited to the media hub to watch games, work on their stories, conduct live shots with Hinkle Fieldhouse in the background, and mingle with other reporters. While in the hub, Butler’s media relations team pitched stories about the history of Hinkle Fieldhouse, Butler’s growth since our back-to-back Final Four appearances, and, of course, the Mayor of March. The effort resulted in significant national coverage of the University, including stories in Seattle, Atlanta, Dallas, and a full-page story on the front of The New York Times Sunday sports section, with the headline “Hinkle Fieldhouse Is Still Ready for Its Close-Up.”
Over the course of the month, Butler’s proactive media outreach directly resulted in hundreds of media hits and millions of online views, for an advertising equivalency of more than $6 million. The exposure to prospective students, relationships with local and national reporters, and pride instilled in Butler alumni will pay dividends for years to come.
When legends connect
Aware that legendary CBS sports commentator Jim Nantz’s bucket list included calling a game in Hinkle Fieldhouse, the Butler Athletics and Marketing teams worked together to give him an unforgettable Hinkle experience. On March 19, right before Nantz’s first game in Hinkle, the Butler team arranged for basketball legend Bobby Plump ’58 to greet Nantz and present him with a basketball signed by the members of the 1954 Milan High School state championship team, which served as the basis for the story of the movie Hoosiers. Nantz was literally brought to tears by the gesture, which was filmed and photographed by the Butler social media team. Nantz and his broadcast partner Bill Raftery spoke about the encounter during multiple broadcasts, and praised Butler President Jim Danko for his leadership of the institution that epitomized Hoosier Hospitality throughout March.