Northern Kentucky University basketball's profile, expectations get a huge bump from tournament

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. -- The Norse have set sail with a strong tailwind.

Second-year men’s basketball coach John Brannen engineered a rare brand of success this month by taking Northern Kentucky University to the NCAA Tournament in its first year eligible after a reclassification from Division II.

The Norse’s unexpected run to the Horizon League Tournament title, which ensured an automatic bid to the Big Dance, captivated the community and thrust the program into the national spotlight. Social media mentions ignited. Season ticket holder interest skyrocketed.

Now, NKU is doing all it can to harness that momentum.

“We are excited about the future of our program and think we have a real opportunity here to grow our fan base,” NKU Athletic Director Ken Bothof said. “We certainly appreciate the people who have come out and supported us and we certainly encourage others to join us as well. We really feel like we have a great product here: great basketball, a great building and affordable prices, and certainly we’re excited about the future.”

An NCAA Tournament game against college basketball blue blood Kentucky was the best situation NKU could have asked for as a No. 15 seed, simply for the eyes watching that outing.

TVbythenumbers.com reported that CBS viewership for the 8-11 p.m. time slot on March 17 was 4.93 million. The Norse and second-seeded Wildcats tipped off just after 10 p.m. in Indianapolis. NKU ultimately lost, 79-70.                 

Northern Kentucky head coach John Brannen reacts during the Kentucky game in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on March 17 in Indianapolis.

Four days later the university encouraged fans to “be part of the excitement and growth of Norse Nation” by ordering season tickets for the 2017-18 season. In a deal that extends through April 3, fans who place a $50 per seat deposit will receive an adidas Horizon League Tournament Champion T-shirt.

In the last week, Bothof said NKU has garnered 128 new season-ticket deposits and 65 percent of the season ticket base has renewed with deposits.

Social media numbers have been other indicators of burgeoning program interest. Consider these stats:

  • The athletic department’s Facebook page yielded a 227 percent increase in reach over the 28-day period leading to March 20. The page reached 572,967 people during that period, and videos posted were viewed more than 395,000 times. That was an increase of over 1,000 percent from the number of video views during the prior 28-day period.
  • On Twitter, the @NKUNorse handle had 1.3 million impressions from March 1-20. That’s a marked contrast from its 437,000 impressions in February and 375,000 in January. The number of followers grew by 829 during the first 20 days of the month. As of Thursday, that account had 9,939 followers. It was also mentioned in 2,634 posts, an increase of 742 percent from February.
  • The @NKUNorseMBB Twitter handle had 254,000 impressions during March, up from 171,000 in February and 99,200 in January. It gained 976 followers in the first 20 days of March and as of Thursday was up to 2,711. Its mentions in the first 20 days of the month ballooned by 494 percent.
  • In a year-by-year comparison, NKU’s website featured a 316 percent increase in users, a 220 percent increase in sessions and a 216 percent increase in page views. More than 49,000 people (users) went to NKUNorse.com nearly 68,000 times (sessions) and viewed just over 212,000 pages on the site (page views).

Considering the excitement around the program, it’s no surprise that Brannen has become a hot name in coaching search speculation. Brannen led a major turnaround in one year, from the 2015-16 season (9-21) to the record-setting 2016-17 campaign (24-11).

Brannen’s name was mentioned as a possible replacement at Dayton earlier this week before the Flyers announced the hiring of Anthony Grant. Brannen was an assistant coach under Grant at Virginia Commonwealth and Alabama.

Bothof said contract extensions discussions with Brannen have been ongoing.

“We started those discussions before we even got to the conference tournament, a little bit," Bothof said. "John and I meet regularly and we talked about how pleased we were and certainly that has been our intention and focus. And we certainly plan on doing all we can to show him we will continue to work with him so that we can provide the type of growth in our program that I know we all want to see happen."

Brannen is in the second year of a four-year deal that pays him $197,000 with incentives.

“Certainly we plan on extending that contract again to four years,” Bothof said.

Bothof spoke highly of Brannen, from his recruiting to his execution, and said NKU’s teams are always well-prepared.

The success in the last season alone should position NKU well for the future in terms of attracting higher-caliber prospects who want to play for Brannen and experience the postseason. Brannen also hails from Northern Kentucky and is "home" in a way that Chris Mack (Xavier) and Mick Cronin (Cincinnati) can relate.

“We feel very fortunate to have John as our head coach and certainly plan on doing what we can to keep him here,” Bothof said.

Next season the University of Cincinnati will play its home games at NKU’s 9,400-seat BB&T Arena as Fifth Third Arena undergoes a one-year, $87 million renovation. How the Bearcats’ temporary move affects NKU’s fan base remains to be seen, but Bothof recognizes plenty of potential.

And that, too, could enhance NKU’s growth.

“I think it’s great to have UC playing here. I think it’s great for their program obviously because of the facility that we have,” Bothof said. “I don’t know if it will translate to more fans for us, but I think it does expose people to a beautiful building and certainly if they have a good experience, it may open up some of those opportunities.”

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