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Southern Conference capitalizes on wins

By Pete Iacobelli
Associated Press
COLUMBIA, S.C. ó Southern Conference commissioner John Iamarino sat next to Davidson athletic direction Jim Murphy at Detroit’s Ford Field last March, stunned as the league’s Wildcats blitzed Big Ten champion Wisconsin in the NCAA’s Sweet 16.
“Do you believe this?” Iamarino asked aloud.
Then again, it’s hard to fathom the athletic year enjoyed by members of the Division I mid-major conference.
“It’s been an out of body experience,” Iamarino says.
It started in September with Appalachian State’s incredible win over Michigan in the Big House, which made headlines across the country. The Mountaineers finished the season three months later with their third straight Football Championship Subdivision championship.
Then came baby-faced Stephen Curry and Davidson’s equally amazing run through the NCAA men’s basketball tournament this past March where the Wildcats came within a bucket of eventual champ Kansas and a spot in the Final Four.
Up next for the Spartanburg-based SoCon? How best to pounce on success.
“There’s no question the marketing directors have something to sell,” said Richard Johnson, athletic director for league member Wofford.
Besides the exposure, Davidson’s three NCAA victories will bring an additional $4.5 million to the Southern Conference the next six years, Iamarino said.
League presidents and leaders decided at the conference’s spring meetings to study how best to handle the surprising surplus ó not that Iamarino won’t get to make some enhancements.
This week, the league announced an eight-game Saturday afternoon package of football broadcasts on SportsSouth. That’s an increase from the six games shown in 2007.
Iamarino expected at least two more additional TV games during basketball season, along with packed arenas whenever Curry, back for his junior season, and the Wildcats play.
The conference will also help its 12 members fund equipment upgrades to improve Web video streaming of games.
The league will hold an inaugural Southern Conference FanFest this summer in Birmingham, Ala., largely to welcome its newest member, Samford, which officially joins July 1. But Iamarino expected future gatherings to move throughout the SoCon’s five-state footprint.
Iamarino plans to move forward with a “long overdue” project, a SoCon Hall of Fame to honor greats of the longtime league that eventually spawned the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences. He said it was way past time to honor athletes like golf great Arnold Palmer and basketball Hall-of-Famer Jerry West, whose college days were spent competing in the SoCon.
There’s been talk of televising other league championships like baseball and soccer. “We haven’t had the budget,” Iamarino said. “Now, we have some other resources available.”
Don’t expect the spotlight to dim anytime soon.
Ohio Valley Conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher was head of the then-Mid-Continent Conference in 1998 when Bryce Drew’s NCAA tournament game-winner against Ole Miss made league member Valparaiso a household name.
“We worked very hard to massage that,” Steinbrecher said.
Soon after Valpo’s success, Steinbrecher sent league staffers back to its conference tournament site of Moline, Ill., to sell tickets for the following year.
When did the affects of Drew’s shot fade? “That’s still with them,” Steinbrecher says. “Those events reverberate in the conference.”
Interest among fans and potential sponsors at Appalachian State and Davidson is high.
Samantha Stevens, Appalachian State’s marketing director, says football season ticket sales are up 62 percent to about 10,000 for this fall. Sponsors are calling for opportunities, she said.
“Everybody’s in love with App right now,” Stevens says. “We want to be real aggressive to keep this excitement building.”
The FSN South’s hourlong documentary about Appalachian State’s victory at Michigan earned an Emmy, further enhancing the relationship between TV and the league, Iamarino says.
And it’s not just at those two North Carolina schools. Johnson of Wofford, who’s football team earned the SoCon title because it knocked off Appalachian State three weeks after the Mountaineers’ Michigan win, says area sponsors have locked onto his school because of its SoCon connection.
“We always say we play in the best,” Johnson said. “When you see what was done this year, that backs that up a little bit.”

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