Jam-packed into an on-campus arena this week for a pep rally, thousands of Florida Gulf Coast University students wanted to show a little school spirit as their men’s basketball team prepared for Friday night’s NCAA Tournament showdown against the in-state powerhouse Florida Gators.
“[Bleep] you Gators!” clap, clap, clap-clap-clap, their chant went.
On live television.
You’ll have to forgive the students at Gulf Coast — the Gators already did — because March Madness has been quite literal for this formerly obscure Fort Myers school ever since the Eagles began upsetting teams in the NCAA Tournament. This university serving 12,000 students on the fringes of a city known more for its fairways and retiring baby boomers has been transformed by all the sudden attention.
“A lot of people think this is Fort Misery,” Nick Frohling, a 21-year-old junior and finance major, said Wednesday after a sendoff for the Eagles, who play Friday in Arlington, Texas. He might have been referring to the oppressive heat, or the lack of big-city night life, or any number of things.
“But now we’re Dunk City.”
It’s true. The new moniker, popularized by a viral YouTube video and brought on by high-flying dunks during the team’s victories over Georgetown and San Diego State this past weekend, is enshrined on the Fort Myers city website.
Used to be, when you said you were attending Florida Gulf Coast, the people back home looked at you quizzically. Not any more.
Almost immediately after the Eagles bounced Big East powerhouse Georgetown on Friday amid a frenzy of spectacular dunks, media outlets from The Washington Post to Forbes to The New York Times started calling. Then ESPN televised the school’s Monday pep rally. Suddenly trips to the book store for a T-shirt began to resemble Black Friday at Sawgrass Mills. Weekend nights, once reserved for boozing in pubs like Uptown Larry’s, are now punctuated by horn-honking victory celebrations and impromptu plunges into North Lake — the latter being frowned upon.
Meanwhile, country clubs and a spa business have latched onto the Dunk City nickname to spur business. And it’s been embraced by Fort Myers Mayor Randall P. Henderson Jr., who says the city is “destined to become a college town.”
What’s happening at Florida Gulf Coast and in Fort Myers is the type of marketing and branding boom that schools with relatively upstart sports programs (like Florida International University and Florida Atlantic) have been chasing for years. The intensity has been magnified by the way the Eagles play. They display an in-your-face aggression, brandishing an array of alley-oop dunks.
The fact that no 15th seed — 15th in a 16-team bracket — has ever made it to the NCAA’s Sweet 16 round is a bonus. The cherry on top is that absolutely no one outside of Southwest Florida had ever heard of the place before this tournament.
Two games in, they are the most talked about team in the country.
“There’s people who don’t even know where Florida Gulf Coast is who are big fans right now,” said Lewis Hardy. He is the CEO of Licensing Resource Group, the company that represents the university on trademark licensing and brand development.
On Saturday, the day after the Eagles upset Georgetown, sales of FGCU apparel and gifts were up 1,000 percent compared to the same day in 2012, according to Follett Higher Education Group, which manages the college bookstore.
Hardy said major retailers like Target and Dick’s Sport Goods are getting in on the act, speeding up orders and then reordering.
The school should expect to see an uptick in applications, particularly from outside of Florida, said Patrick Walsh, an assistant professor of sports administration at Indiana University. That has happened at previous “Cinderella” schools — lowly underdogs that shocked the world in the NCAA Tournament.
That’s key for a college that only opened in 1997, and where more than 90 percent of the kids are from Florida.
“They’re getting a lot of unique attention now, and I think that’s going to carry over,” Walsh said.
The college’s coming-out party hasn’t been seamless.
Students are still laughing about a Duke game program they say identified the Eagles as the Florida Gulf Coast Panthers a few months ago. And just last week, TBS showed a graphic calling the campus “Florida Golf Coast” — although to be fair the school is surrounded by country clubs.
Such nomenclature hiccups aside, the marketing opportunities are there, as FGCU student Malike Adigun proved when he lured half a million hits to a video about Fort Myers, er, Dunk City. A sample:
(Adigun has already gone to work filming Dunk City 2.)
Whether all this changes if and when the Eagles lose is unclear. Dunk City might go back to being hot, steamy, sleepy, unglamorous Fort Myers.
But there is another possibility, said Hardy.
“What would happen,” he said, “if they happen to beat Florida?”