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Volume 23 No. 17
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White House visits not getting old for ’Nova’s Jackson

Mark Jackson, Villanova’s first-year athletic director, has watched his men’s basketball team cut down the nets after the NCAA tournament, celebrate with a parade through Philadelphia and ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. Last week’s once-in-a-lifetime visit to the White House was actually Jackson’s third — he twice went with the University of Southern California’s title-winning football team — but the excitement in his voice confirmed that it’s not yet old hat for the 42-year-old. The “wow factor,” as Jackson described it, is still there. He shared the experience with SportsBusiness Journal’s Michael Smith.

How big was your travel party for the White House?

JACKSON: The numbers were fairly limited. I think we were somewhere around 70 people. We had the basketball traveling party, we brought the coaches’ wives, we brought practice players, really anybody who had a role in the day-to-day operation of the team. That was the priority. From there, we took our campus leadership.

The Villanova basketball team meets with President Obama.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
What was the day like?

JACKSON: For us, it’s a pretty easy drive down. We had a wonderful lunch at an alumni-owned restaurant called Due South, right outside of where the Nationals play. When we went over to the White House, we went through about three checkpoints. And then we started a tour on the East Wing, and we walked by some ceremonial rooms, the presidential movie theater, the China Room, the library. Every room was like a history lesson. As we prepared for the ceremony, they took us up to the second level of, I guess, the East Wing. These were more like state rooms, the bigger rooms of the White House. They had a jazz band and some other guests. They take you through the protocol for when the president enters the room, then you sit around and wait.

When President Obama walks in the room, it’s surreal. You could tell he was very comfortable being around the team. I’ve had the opportunity to do this a couple of times with USC football and those numbers are so big. You’re talking about a party of 200 people, so you don’t get the intimacy like with a basketball team. And you know the president has a passion for basketball and so that was probably enjoyable for him. He obviously has bigger things to worry about, but he definitely made us feel welcome. He was in there a good 15 minutes. He shook everybody’s hand and had something to say to everybody.

Then we wound up at Old Ebbitt Grill, which is a popular Washington, D.C., spot, for dinner, and we got on the road and came home. It was a day I’ll never forget.

How familiar did he seem with the team and particularly Kris Jenkins’ game-winning shot?

JACKSON: You know, it was kind of cool. One of the gifts we presented was a picture of the president taking a jumper and we put that in a framed photo next to a photo of Jenkins hitting the game winner. So the president made sure Kris knew that his shot went in, too. They had some fun with that.

How do you start to quantify what the championship means, business-wise?

JACKSON: Certainly, we think about what the tournament has meant for us, especially in terms of brand value, exposure to your brand. (Campus communications is working on a study to place a value on the exposure.) We’re still formulating those numbers, but you can imagine.

For me, the more day-to-day analysis revolves around things like our online retail sales in March and April, which were up over 450 percent. You look at social media and the way our Villanova basketball handle and athletic department handle have skyrocketed. Prior to the tournament, men’s basketball had about 20,000 followers on Twitter, and now it’s closing in on 90,000. Obviously, with the entire sponsorship platform, people want to be associated with the program. That’s all enhanced.

What about fundraising?

JACKSON: It helps, certainly, but having gone through this before with back-to-back football championships at USC, you might expect a dramatic spike in fundraising, but that’s not always the case. A lot of people assume everything’s already in pretty good shape.

You also have to stay true to who you are. You can’t let it change how you do business or how you approach things.