Associate commissioner for communications, Missouri Valley Conference
The Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) has had a banner year in the sport of men's college basketball. The most buzzed-about small conference set records for the number of teams it placed in postseason tournaments (six) and the success it's had so far in this year's NCAA men's tournament dubbed "March Madness". Kern answered PRWeek.com's questions before teams were selected for the tournaments, discussing the conference's success, its media strategy, and how he plans to leverage basketball coverage towards other MVC activities.
Q: What does your communications department do?
A: We have a three-person communications staff that handles all aspects of media relations for 18 Valley sports. In a nutshell, our role, in addition to promoting our schools and student-athletes at our institutions, is to serve as league historians. Many times we serve as the league administrator at championship events, which would include managing the awards program on site as well as serving as a coaches' liaison during the event. Specific day-to-day tasks include the production of media guides, managing all conference and player-of-the week awards processes and announcements, writing and editing weekly releases (notebooks), and maintaining our Web sites with pertinent game recaps, current standings, and statistics.
Q: How many NCAA bids did you expect to get? And were you happy with the result? Was there any lobbying on behalf of the teams, from the conference, to get more teams into the tournament?
A: The NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee has a challenging task every year. Selecting the "best" 34 at-large teams each season is a year-long process and an unenviable task. From a conference perspective, there's a certain degree of lobbying that goes on, but for the most part, it is more of an education process – making sure the committee has accurate information on injuries/player availability, etc. The 2005-2006 season has been a historic one for the Missouri Valley Conference. More teams [six] will participate in post-season men's basketball tournaments this year than any other season in our 99-year history. All, minus our automatic qualifier Southern Illinois (four others with 20 wins and another with 19 victories) had valid arguments to receive at-large consideration for the NCAA field.
Q: As far as the media attention bestowed upon the Missouri Valley Conference's college basketball season, was that proactive or the byproduct of the sports media's interest in the conference's prowess this year?
A: I'd have to say it was a combination of both. Of course, there's a great deal of planning and strategy that goes on before that first story hits print, but it all starts with the administrators at our institutions, our coaches, student-athletes, and teams. It's a lot easier to promote six teams in the Top 40 of the RPI [Ratings Percentage Index, which helps determine inclusion in the March Madness tournament], five teams with 20-win seasons, and being the No. 6-rated conference, than an alternate scenario.
Q: What effect have things like the cover story on the USA Today section, repeated mentions on ESPN, and other media hits had on the MVC? Does it bleed into other areas of the conference's work? Can you leverage that coverage for the individual schools, other sports, and academic endeavors, etc.?
A: Obviously, the national coverage has been a big plus for us this year. ESPN, USA Today, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News, The Washington Post, and CBS Sports have all done very positive pieces on the Valley's success this year. And one feeds off the other. The focus for all of them, of course, has been on men's basketball and the success our teams have had this year. And for now, that's where the storylines stop. One thing it has enabled us to do, however, is build relationships with editors and writers, which we hope will lead to coverage beyond men's basketball in the future.
Q: The director of communications from the University of Connecticut told PRWeek.com that he expected a greater visibility after winning the national championship in 2004. Do you expect the same to occur with the MVC's successful 2005-2006 campaign?
A: The success we've had this year can only lead to greater visibility. Our television package included more men's basketball coverage than any previous year, including national distribution on ESPN's family of networks and our State Farm MVC Men's Basketball Tournament Championship game on CBS Sports. Better television and print exposure helps in the recruiting wars, which leads to better student-athletes, better teams, and increased exposure again. The snowball effect can be an enormous boon to all of our 10 institutions.
Q: How do you interact with the communications departments from individual colleges?
A: We deal strictly with the athletic department and the sports information offices at our 10 institutions.
Q: With the spotlight sure to be on the MVC as March Madness begins and continues, is there any goal to be out there pushing other MVC stories (education, other sports, community building, etc.)?
The goal is there, sure, but the obvious focus of the media in March will be about men's and women's basketball. It's important that we pick our spots. And although the focus right now is on basketball, it's important that we cultivate relationships with the media this month. We can plant seeds on story ideas now and follow that up later when those other non-basketball stories are more relevant.
Q: Do conferences (both athletically and academically) do enough to brand themselves? Do you think the public, outside of die-hard sports fans, know enough about what schools belong where and what the conferences do to instill a sense of competition/community?
A: Branding is difficult. I think the fans in the Midwest know what teams are in the Valley and in what cities our institutions are located. It goes both ways, though. For example, I'd hazard to say that not a lot of folks in the Midwest know much about teams from the Big West or the Colonial conferences, either. Media exposure and increased television opportunities are important tools as we seek to educate those outside of our geographic regions.
Q: What was the best media placement for the MVC this or last year? What sort of media would you like to get into that you haven't cracked yet?
A: The best media placement? All of it has been very good for us. However, CBS Sports purchased the television rights from ESPN and the network made a commitment to televise our 2006 and 2007 State Farm MVC men's tournament championship games last spring. That has the potential to help us cross the barrier between sports junkie and casual fan. Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, and USA Today are widely distributed national publications that have given us significant coverage. We've had mention in all of them before, but appearing in those national publications in repeated seasons or on a more annual basis is what we'd like to crack.
Q: What is the message you have been pushing out about the MVC to the media, constituents, and other stakeholders? Do you try and differentiate the conference from other ones out there?
A: I wouldn't say that we try to differentiate our league from others. Although one label that has been bestowed upon us and leagues like ours is the "mid-major" tag. I'm not sure what "mid-major" refers to, unless one is talking about financial resources of our institutions. We have good basketball in the Missouri Valley Conference, and we're competitive from top to bottom. All 10 of our institutions have great basketball atmospheres; folks that have the opportunity to witness that on a daily basis would agree. The quality of our league is major, nothing "mid" about it.