Like all of the 16 university presidents at the meeting last month in Texas with U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Saint Peter’s University’s Eugene Cornacchia gave his name and school before he began speaking.
He was the only one who was quickly interrupted.
“Are you from Saint Peter’s, the school whose Peacocks made the famous Cinderella run in the NCAA Tournament?” Mayorkas said, waving his hands in the air in a celebratory gesture.
“The one and only,” Cornacchia said back, with more than a touch of revelry.
After Saint Peter’s captured the attention of the nation last March with its run to the Elite Eight, Cornacchia said he knew the publicity the school received would last longer than the three-week tournament. He just didn’t know it would be like this.
One year later — as the 2023 version of the NCAA Tournament gets underway this week — even Cornacchia said he is surprised at how the school’s magical four-game, 10-day run in 2022 still is top of mind for so many.
“I would say the magic is still here,” he told ROI-NJ. “It’s really quite amazing. Certainly, the level of the hoopla has died down somewhat, but the recognition of the university is still very strong, not only in our main market here in the Northeast, but across the country.”
Cornacchia said the Peacock logo on a shirt or a bag or a jacket still invites strangers to come up to him, looking to have a word. He welcomes each conversation.
“I have to tell you, it is a blast,” he said. “It’s such a blast.”
It has been a blast for the Jersey City school’s bottom line, too.
When Saint Peter’s, a No. 15 seed, followed its stunning overtime upset of Kentucky with victories over Murray State and Purdue before falling to North Carolina, one game short of the Final Four, some marketing firms estimated it would be worth $100 million in free marketing and publicity.
School officials laugh. They haven’t seen any checks anywhere near that amount. But the effort has paid off — literally and figuratively — in a number of ways.
Start with merchandising, which was flying off the shelves — or, more accurately, was being pulled out of boxes — during the run, as the school quickly sold more than $50,000 worth of shirts, hats, etc.
In March-May of 2022, Saint Peter’s licensees reported over $500,000 in licensed merchandise sales. This was a 3,945% increase from the same time period in 2021.
Here’s the deal: It hasn’t really slowed. Since the start of the new fiscal year in July, there has been an additional $105,000 in sales — an 80% increase for the same period (pre-NCAA run).
Since the first tournament win in March, 20 new companies have added the Saint Peter’s license.
Fundraising is going great, too. The school’s capital campaign is closing in on its record goal of $75 million. Fiscal Year 2022 (which ended June 30, 2022) not only brough a record $2.2 million in unrestricted giving, it came with a 47% year-over-year increase in new donors.
The real success, however, is in applications and enrollment.
The number of out-of-state students that enrolled in fall 2022, 32, was double the amount compared to fall 2021, when a similar number of out-of-state students were admitted but far fewer, 15, elected to attend.
As of today, freshmen applications at the school are up 63% compared to this time last year.
Cornacchia said the number of companies — both locally and nationally — that have reached out to him has grown exponentially, too. He can’t put a metric on it, but he’s confident the new accounting pilot program the school is doing with PwC is a direct result of the exposure from the tournament.
Notoriety is one thing. Revenue and applications are another. Cornacchia, however, likes to talk about the increased spirit that is now found at the little Jersey City school that could.
“The tournament really helped us project the university into markets that we really couldn’t afford to tap into and gave us millions of dollars of publicity across this country,” he said. “That’s really been a great boost for us, but, I think, more than anything, it has really helped to expand our own sense of internal pride.
“We’ve always had a lot of pride, but to see ourselves on the world stage for that period of time — and to have all that attention and love for our players and for our university — was really extraordinary.”
Cornacchia, who has served as president of the school since 2007, said he knows the way athletics interacts with higher education is quickly changing, as it is entering a world where athletes can earn millions on their own likeness.
He also knows such scenarios don’t trickle down to schools such as Saint Peter’s. He feels that’s another reason why Saint Peter’s caught the attention of the country.
“I think it spoke to the importance of schools such as St. Peter’s and others in mid-major conferences,” he said. “Everyone expects for the big schools to do well, but, let’s face it, the excitement in last year’s tournament was the Peacocks’ Cinderella run.”
Saint Peter’s — with a new coach and a new team — came two wins shy of qualifying for the tournament this year. Cornacchia is OK with that. He also knows the coming days will create a new Cinderella. He’s OK with that, too.
In fact, he wishes that school well — and offers this piece of advice: Be ready.
“Savor it, because you don’t know if something like this is ever going to come again,” he said. “And more than anything, jump on it right away. Do your best to take all the advantages that you can get out of the prominence that it’s going to give you.
“We got new marketing initiatives ready to take advantage of the opportunity.”
And then there’s this: Understand the impact goes much deeper than sports or revenue or applications, Cornacchia said.
“It really is an opportunity,” he said. “Yes, it’s basketball, and that’s important for our student-athletes and for our whole community, but it’s also about showing the world what the rest of the university is about.
“The bottom line is that every single one of our students is a Peacock at heart and can do what those kids did on the floor in their own spheres. That’s worth celebrating.”