March Madness success boosts USC’s reputation and wallet

With the Pac-12′s prowess and USC’s Elite Eight appearance, this year’s tournament brought new prestige and big payouts to the West Coast.

For the first time in 20 years, USC men’s basketball danced its way to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament. This historic run, plus the media attention garnered by the Mobley brothers, will not only influence the school’s athletic reputation, but its revenue and finances.

For conferences like the Pac-12, which saw five of its schools given a bid to the tournament and three advance to the Elite Eight, it means payouts the likes of which have only been seen once before in tournament history.

A conference’s payout is based on an accumulation of “units,” which are earned every time a team advances in the tournament. The units are paid out to the respective conferences for the following six years, gaining interest each year. In 2021, each unit was worth $337,141. The Pac-12 had the most teams (3) advance to the Elite Eight, earning a total of 19 units by the end of the tournament. Each school, or member, of the Pac-12 will receive equal dividends of the revenue, regardless if it made the NCAA Tournament or not.

The question becomes: Where does the money go? According to the L.A. Times, the money based on units given by the Pac-12 to schools like USC go directly to the schools’ athletic departments. Schools can independently decide how to spend their share from there.

For USC, which had not made it to the Elite Eight since 2001 before this year, the historic run is about more than just the finances, but also the program’s exposure and long-term development.

Darren Rovell, a sports business analyst for The Action Network, discussed the implications of such success on a conference like the Pac-12 that has faced criticism in past years.

“Obviously, it’s given the conference — whose TV deal and whose leadership has been called a disaster — confidence and relevance,” Rovell said. “A run through the tournament and going this far, especially when there’s not a lot of expectations, is something that’s big for them. There’s a lot of positive energy potential.”

USC associate professor of professional practice Miki Turner said that USC men’s basketball’s revenue from the tournament will be best served toward recruiting new players to replace powerhouses leaving the program, such as freshman forward Evan Mobley, who declared for the 2021 NBA Draft on April 16.

“I think that USC probably will see a sort of resurgence financially and in terms of recruitment for its run this year,” Turner said. “Once you recruit the top players, five star players, then you generate even more money.”

Still, the Pac-12 competes with seemingly more popular conferences like the Big Ten, ACC and Big 12 for national attention. For a conference like the Pac-12 that “started from behind,” as said by USC associate professor of professional practice Jeff Fellenzer, the progress made in the 2021 tournament could indicate future growth.

“The perceptions that you leave the public with at the end of a season carry over into the next season in the off-season talk – the preseason rankings, recruiting, national outlook,” Fellenzer said. “All of the sudden, Pac-12 schools will be in rankings pre-season, and that gets you to the national conversation, that gets your coaches and players on talk shows and feature stories. It provides an upward arc into the next season.”

In terms of media attention, senior director of business communications and heritage for the L.A. Kings Jeff Moeller emphasized the importance of national and local news coverage surrounding Pac-12 teams.

“USC basketball winning like they did has a trickle-down effect in town as it relates to sports coverage,” he said. “USC and UCLA were basically owning the town, in addition to the national coverage they were receiving, which is obviously beyond the norm. As a sports team you think through those types of decisions – timing is very important, as is having your pulse on the city at the moment.”

Aside from the traditional freshman recruitment route that USC has impressed with in recent years — with the Mobleys, Onyeka Okongwu and Kevin Porter Jr. — USC’s newfound reputation can benefit the program greatly through the transfer portal. Players such as junior guard Drew Peterson, redshirt senior guard Tahj Eaddy, redshirt senior forward Chevez Goodwin and redshirt senior guard Isaiah White were among the powerhouse transfers for the 2020-21 season that boosted the Trojans’ dynamic.

“The key is learning how you can build a program that could sustain those losses [of USC NBA draft picks] and ... what helps is the transfer portal,” Fellenzer said. “Obviously USC used it to its best impact, most effectively this past year with transfers that were really good. It’s not a traditional way of building a program, but these are sort of untraditional times with things like the portal that we have currently.”

On April 12, San Diego native Boogie Ellis announced his transfer to play basketball at USC starting in his upcoming junior year. As a sophomore point guard at Memphis, he averaged 10.2 points on 40% shooting. With increased media attention, transfer portal attractiveness and an inflated reputation, basketball excellence has an opportunity to shift to the West Coast in the coming years if the Pac-12 continues to deliver.

“It’s going to take a while, but I don’t see any reason why USC can’t build upon this moment and really sort of build a quality basketball team that will last for decades and not months,” Turner said.