Cinderella teams surprise local newspapers p.36

By: Jose Strupp & Novack When the Southwest Missouri State University Bears won a coveted spot in the NCAA men's basketball tournament, survived the first two rounds unscathed, and lined up to play powerhouse Duke University, Lyndal Scranton knew he had his work cut out for him.
Scranton, the nine-year SMSU beat writer for the 60,000-circulation Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader, had not planned on covering more than the team's first round game against Wisconsin. But when the Bears knocked off its first two opponents and headed to play one of the nation's best teams, Scranton and the paper's entire sports department went into high gear.
"It was quite an undertaking," says Scranton, one of five full-time sports writers for the Gannett-owned daily. "It was awfully hectic but awfully fun, too."
Although the News-Leader regularly covers SMSU sports, having the team reach the final "Sweet Sixteen" round was something they had not expected. Since the team had barely gotten into this year's playoffs, sports coverage was expected to be minimal.
"They had only won a tournament game once in 1987," says Scranton, who also covered three St. Louis Cardinal World Series appearances in the 1980s. "It was big, particularly when they got past the second round."
The team's sudden success prompted the newspaper to put out two special sections, an eight-page wrap-around on March 12, the day of the team's first tournament game, and another 10-page spread on March 19, the day they faced Duke, and lost, 78-61. Editors also sent Scranton, a second reporter, and a photographer to East Rutherford, N.J., to cover the SMSU-Duke game.
"Circulation was up the entire week until the last game," says marketing development director Michael Keither, who reports a 7% average single-copy sales increase during the tournament, including a 10% jump for the March 12 special section edition. "We thought they might get into the tournament, but we were surprised when they went this far."
The coverage also coincided with the SMSU women's basketball team playing in the Women's NCAA tournament and news that the men's basketball coach would be leaving the school next year to coach the University of Iowa.
Although the newspaper has a Web site, it provides only community information.
"The coverage was very intense," says sports editor Jeff Majeske. "The special sections were flying off the racks."
The News-Leader's experience was repeated at several small-town newspapers that cover basketball programs not known for making a big post-season splash.
One was the Spokane, Wash., Spokesman-Review, which provided wall-to-wall coverage of the Gonzaga Bulldogs up until they landed a surprise Sweet Sixteen spot. Until their loss to the University of Connecticut Huskies on March 20, the 116,000-circulation paper had four reporters and three photographers tag along with the team.
Sports editor Jeff Jordon says that while there were no special sections published, playoff coverage dominated the front page three times during the tournament.
"We had something on Page One almost everyday, after the team's first win against Stanford University," says Jordon.
The newspaper also promoted the team with more than 100,000 "Go Zags" cards that were posted in store windows around the city. Thousands of the cards also were sent to the tournament site cities, but NCAA rules prohibited the paper's name from being used.
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