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Associated Press
Butler University’s Blue II stands on the court at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis before a January game. Banking on basketball, Butler’s growth strategy is paying off with higher enrollment and recognition.

BUTLER BOOM

Focus on basketball turned around university’s fortunes

– The number has always stuck in Geoffrey Bannister’s head: 1,947. That was Butler University’s enrollment in 1989.

“We were running at a deficit budget and our enrollment was in decline,” said Bannister, 66, who was Butler president from 1988 to 2000. “Butler had lost its edge.”

Bannister had an idea to get that edge back. Make the lowly men’s Bulldogs basketball team a national power and use it as a marketing tool to engage alumni, increase annual giving to the school and recruit more and better students and instructors.

It seemed preposterous. After all, in 1990, Butler had put up losing records in 13 of its previous 16 seasons.

By now, everyone knows that the plan launched by Bannister and carried forward by his successors Bobby Fong and James Danko has been a slam dunk.

The on-court successes – including amassing winning seasons in 21 of the last 23 years – have been well-documented, but the basketball plan also has boosted enrollment and fundraising to levels that not even Bannister could have imagined.

The basketball blueprint resulted in a marketing plan – complete with help from Disney to design the logo and mascot – that has given the tiny university a brand approaching that of the goliaths of college athletics and academics.

Attendance for home games at Hinkle Fieldhouse has gone from about 3,000 in the late 1980s to about 7,900 per game for 16 home games this year. With more games and better opponents, total home attendance has tripled from the 1980s, to 126,386 this year.

That success has translated to growth for the university as a whole: Butler’s enrollment is now at 4,200. Fueled by runs to the NCAA Final Four in 2010 and 2011, admission applications have increased from 6,760 in 2010 to 9,682 in 2012.

While the school is nearing enrollment capacity, Butler officials told the Indianapolis Business Journal the increased applications have allowed it to improve its students’ overall academic qualifications.

Annual giving at Butler is also up. The school’s haul has doubled – hitting $13.2 million with 11 weeks left in the 2013 fiscal year – since Bannister rolled out his plan.

The growth of Butler’s basketball team has been so dramatic that the school used the juice to jump to a bigger conference this season: The Atlantic 10. And the school took an even bigger step last week when it was announced it would move to the Big East starting next season.

Danko has gone on the road to conference games in Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C. Not only has the school coordinated alumni events during each road game, but Danko has done interviews with some of the nation’s biggest media outlets, helping to amp up Butler’s brand far beyond basketball.

“The games are more than just games,” Burt said. “Whether they’re at home or away, we treat them as events – a way to engage students, alums and others.”

Wider exposure

Though the move to the A10 has cost Butler more money than it has generated, Danko said it’s been a good investment.

Butler is a private school and not required to make its budgets public, but it’s clear the basketball budget has gone up considerably even before the conference move. In addition to renovations at Hinkle Fieldhouse, Coach Brad Stevens has seen his salary more than triple, to about $1 million.

Still, marketers think the exposure is well worth the expense.

“Butler is a model, especially for small schools, in how to use athletic excellence to broadcast a message about academic excellence,” said Milt Thompson, president of Grand Slam Cos., an Indianapolis sports marketing consultancy. “No school does it better, period.”

Beyond student recruitment and fundraising, there’s an added benefit to the exposure.

“We know now that, when our students send resumes to New York or wherever, people are much more likely to recognize the name Butler University,” Weede said. “And market research shows us that recognition is equated with quality.”

The exposure outside the state is showing up in Butler’s student body. In 2010, 54 percent of Butler students were from Indiana. Now, more than 56 percent are from outside Indiana.

“A person from New York brings a different perspective than someone from (rural Indiana),” Weede said. “A diversified classroom more closely mimics the type of world our students will work in. We now have students from 46 states attending Butler, and we think that’s an important part of the experience here.”

A tough sell

Initially, though, the plan was not seen as an automatic score.

When Bannister unveiled it to the Indianapolis Star and told the paper he wanted Butler “to be competitive with Indiana and Purdue” in men’s basketball, that triggered a call from then-IU coach Bob Knight.

“He told me I didn’t know a thing about basketball,” Bannister said. “I told him that I already knew that.”

Despite Knight’s skepticism, he agreed to help Bannister formulate a growth plan. Bannister also solicited the help of then-Purdue University Coach Gene Keady and then-Indiana Pacers President Donnie Walsh.

“Donnie Walsh deserves a lot of credit,” Bannister said. “He really helped us fine-tune our plan.”

The main pillar of the plan, Bannister said, was a 25-page business blueprint compiled by Barry Collier, who was then entering his second year as Butler’s coach. Collier is now the school’s athletic director.

“It wasn’t just how to recruit better players,” said Bannister, who is now president at Hawaii Pacific University. “It included connecting to the community, marketing and a whole lot more.

“Barry had considered everything: where the band and cheerleaders should sit, how the Fieldhouse should be configured, how we could improve the interior of the facilities for players and fans without affecting the building’s historical integrity. It was an amazing plan.”

But selling it would be tough.

“At first people said, ‘You want to invest in what?’ ” Bannister recalled. “It was a pretty bold move at the time. Some of the faculty thought I was insane.”

But Bannister quickly gained the trustees’ support.

“Fundamentally, the decision to pursue excellence in basketball was a marketing decision,” said Tom King, a 1966 Butler graduate who served on the university’s board for 24 years from the late 1970s through the 1990s.

“There was a proper amount of investigation and due diligence, healthy questioning. But it was so authentic. It was seen as an ideal way to distinguish this small school,” King added.

Even little things seemed to make a huge difference. Then-trustee Tom Elrod solicited the help of some associates at Disney to design the mascot and logo. Disney designers did more than $500,000 worth of work for $10,000, Bannister said.

“The Disney designers said we should have something friendly enough, yet a bit scary,” Bannister said. “We wanted it to appeal to kids and adults.”

Then, Butler communications guru Chris Denari and Collier came up with the plan to use a live Bulldog mascot in a major marketing thrust. The Butler Bulldog this year has been the focus of articles in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Forbes and the Huffington Post.

Bannister called the effort to market the school through the basketball program “a relay race,” with the torch picked up “beautifully” by his successors.

“One reason this effort has been so successful is that there’s been continuity in the commitment to it through changes in coaches, athletic directors and even university presidents,” Grand Slam’s Thompson said. “At every turn, they’ve tied the tradition of this institution into a ground-breaking growth strategy.”

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