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The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, January 4, 2012

By Bethany Bradsher

A little hype, good or bad, can go a long way


A little hype, good or bad, can go a long way
Pirates ride momentum into conference wars
C-USA Bowl Scoreboard
Pirates should contend in 2012
East Carolina overwhelms Highland Cavs
Audio: Jeff Lebo after the UVa-Wise game
ECU fends off Eagles
East Carolina Pushes for Bountiful Recruiting Haul
Pirates win third straight
Purple and gold gratitude fills Pirates' outbox
Pirates play like pros on semester break
ECU-CCU Photo Gallery
Audio: Jeff Lebo after the Coastal Carolina game
Shamarr Bowden & Miguel Paul Postgame Audio

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

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It’s a quote often attributed to circus promoter Phineas Barnum, and some East Carolina athletic officials have put it to the test in recent weeks.

“There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

With Jeff Lebo’s basketball team still playing NAIA opponents and the football season over and done, there would normally have been no reason for the nation to be talking about ECU this December. Until the Pirate Club announced its “Virtual Bowl” promotion.

As part of a push to raise the remaining funds for the planned basketball practice facility, the Pirate Club issued a challenge to its members in mid-December, asking them to use money they would normally spend on a bowl trip to buy $50 tickets to the “Virtual Bowl.”

It actually wasn’t a new idea in the halls of the Pirate athletic department. ECU raised nearly $20,000 for athletic scholarships with a similar promotion in 2004. But this time around, the sports world has taken notice in a big way.

Sports Illustrated named the Virtual Bowl as “Sign of The Apocalypse” in the Dec. 26 issue. Jim Rome ranted about it on his show. Just about every major sports website — as well as message boards for fans from every conference in the country — weighed in on the idea of selling fake tickets to a fake game.

Some of the comments were negative, like the contributor on who wrote, “It would be more dignified for someone in the department to stand in downtown Greenville with a beggar’s cup.”  But for every puzzled poster online, there was someone else who called the idea an innovative fundraising strategy.

A item went a step further, saying, “Props to ECU for thinking outside the box in its fundraising efforts and for poking fun at the watered-down nature of the bowl season in general.”

Not even Chris Johnson’s rapid ascent as an NFL rookie brought ECU this much press. And even if the Virtual Bowl is an odd way to garner national recognition, ECU Assistant AD for Major Gifts Mark Wharton has this answer for the detractors: Nearly $15,000 from 146 donors. It might not have come close to the stated goal of outselling the actual bowl tickets at rival C-USA schools, but the drive brought in needed money for the basketball facility with no overhead.

“Some of the negative articles said we were desperate and we didn’t have any other way to raise money,”   Wharton said. “But we’ve already raised most of it.”

The “Step Up to the Highest Level” campaign has already raised $12.8 million for the basketball gym, which is being designed to alleviate the crowding caused by both basketball teams and the volleyball team sharing Minges Coliseum for practice and games. Ground is scheduled to be broken on the building in March, and Wharton feels confident that the full $15 million will be collected by this spring.

As for the prominent recent treatment in Sports Illustrated, ECU sports information director Tom McClellan had only one beef — the writer referred to ECU as “Eastern Carolina.” McClellan fired off an e-mail to the magazine taking issue with the misprint, and he received a heartfelt apology from an SI staffer who said he considered the gaffe as bad as misspelling the name of Notre Dame.

ECU officials and fans can take the criticism in stride, whether they bought Virtual Bowl tickets or not. Because if all publicity is good publicity, things go south for a team when no one is talking at all. As Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde once opined, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

If the jury has been out on the effectiveness of the Virtual Bowl, no debate at all has been sparked by the other major ECU marketing strategy over Christmas break — $5 tickets for Pirate holiday basketball games. All of part of my family went to every one of those $5 games, and the crowds of families were impressive even against obscure opponents like Virginia-Wise.

Scott Wetherbee, ECU’s director of marketing, said that he and his staff realized they needed to think creatively when they saw four games on the schedule during the period when students and the Pirates band would be off campus on break. The results, Wetherbee said, have been good for ticket sales and, since the Pirates won every game, even better for momentum leading into the Conference USA slate.

“The goal was to have as many people get hooked as possible, and hopefully they had a good enough time that they realized it was worth it to charge full price when the conference schedule gets here,” Wetherbee said. “The Thursday night game (against N.C. Central) was one of the largest walk-ups we’ve had.”

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01/04/2012 03:43 AM

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