While almost everyone in March Madness wants to be this year's version of reigning national champion Kansas, almost anyone playing over the next three weeks would also love to be this year's version of Doug Edert.
If that name doesn't ring a bell, maybe Edert's wispy mustache will. Edert was the reserve guard from Saint Peter's who turned into a social media sensation after scoring 20 points in a first-round upset over Kentucky last March.
By the time he and the Peacocks made history by becoming the first 15 seed to advance to the Elite Eight, Edert's mustache had its own Twitter handle and Edert himself had deals hawking chicken wings and a few other products.
All of this was spurred by the confluence of social media's ever-growing imprint on society (and sports) combined with the new and loosely regulated world of NIL, the name, imagine and likeness deals that allow college athletes to cash in on paid endorsements.
Edert's success story is one of several examples of the ways social media has turbocharged March Madness, that one-of-a-kind American sporting event that had communal elements built in — think, the bracket and the office pool — long before the internet even existed.
The key for someone like Edert — and there will almost certainly be another “someone like Edert” once the shots start flying — was to move quickly.
“My main focus was basketball, and obviously, I'm trying to do whatever I can to help my team win games,” Edert told The Associated Press. “But at the same time, I'm trying to capitalize on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Some things — namely, the emerging love affair with his jump shot, to say nothing of his ‘70s-style ’stache — took on a life of their own, the way things often do on TikTok, Instagram and the other social media platforms that help drive the tournament's popularity. Others — namely, the hot wings deal and a few more sponsorships — came because he struck quickly at the urging of his friends and parents, who were watching this unheralded guard from a tiny school blow up in real time.
“Nobody was pressuring me, saying, ‘You’ve gotta do this, or you've gotta do that,'” Edert said. “They were just behind me, and they were offering to help in any way they could.”
Edert would not divulge the amount he has made from his sponsorships, which included a deal shooting celebrity video messages and another promoting a website that offers adult recreational sports leagues.
But, he said, it gave him a “nice little start, for whatever happens after college.” Certainly, it gave him more than someone like him might have gotten only a couple years ago. And it was not something anyone saw coming for a guard from a 3,400-student school in Jersey City, New Jersey.
“There's always that chance that a star player, or an underrated player from a team that goes far, will capture the hearts of America, and where will they capture it? On social media,” said Jeffrey Weiner, senior vice president for NIL marketing at GSE Worldwide. “It'll be on TV, and then they'll go look for that person on social media. People are watching these games with their phones in their hands.”
Edert said he rarely posted on social media, and had a following of about 1,500 on Instagram in early March of last year.
“And after the Kentucky game, I look at my phone and it's 6,000 followers and it's going up," he said. It is now 149,000, barely a blip by hoop-star standards, but a 1,000 times more than he had a year ago.
Perhaps the single most impactful social media post to emerge in the NIL era came from the TikTok account of Oregon's Sedona Prince.
Her takedown of the NCAA for the sparse weight room facilities at the 2021 women's tournament shined a spotlight on the disparities between men's and women's college sports. That video currently has been viewed more than 12.3 million times.
In the month between February 2021 and the time Prince posted a month later, the hashtag “NCAA” spiked from 7 million to 490 million views on TikTok. The hashtag “March Madness” has gone from 957 million views in 2021 to 1.4 billion views this year on TikTok — and that 2023 figure was calculated before a single basket had been made in the actual tournament.
Prince's TikTok following now numbers 2.8 million. With the explosion in popularity came a deal with an energy drink that includes equity and cash in exchange for creating content on social media. Her current feed also includes sponsored content with Buick and Crocs, which means she now has a bank account to go with her unexpected fame.
“I've tried to optimize my NIL opportunities.,” Prince said in an interview last year with Yahoo Finance. “I take what I do off the court, which is TikTok and certain brand deals, but turn them into something I can use for the rest of my life., money that I can retire with, put my kids through college with.”
The NIL platform Opendorse estimated that companies spent $917 million on college athlete deals in the first year they were approved. Most of those earnings were made via social media.
These days, many arrangements come on the front end through so-called collectives that are tied to schools, often sealed during the recruiting process. Edert, however, was making no such money when he signed to play for Shaheen Holloway at Saint Peter's.
“At the beginning of the year, when they explained to students that you can start your own business or have your own brand, I'm thinking, 'This doesn't really apply to me,'” Edert said of the preseason athletic department presentations he sat through.
Now, it does, and Edert's star turn at March Madness last year also played a roundabout role in his second run through the recruiting process. When Holloway left Saint Peter's for a job at his alma mater, Seton Hall, several Peacocks, including Edert, used social media to let the world know they were entering the transfer portal.
“I announced early in the morning, and by 7:30 or 8, my phone started blowing up,” Edert said.
Most of those calls and messages were from coaches at Edert's new school, Bryant University, where they knew a lot more about the guard out of Nutley, New Jersey than they might have the year before. Those coaches weren't the only ones.
“Even yesterday, I was signing autographs and taking some pictures with kids in middle school and high school,” Edert said. “They said ‘We love you, Doug.” And I felt great. I’m just doing what I love to do. There's a lot of love and support from a lot of people, and it really means a lot."
AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25