It’s been a little over a week since Duke won the National Championship, and as a Tar Heel fan, I am still reeling. Just thinking about it leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but think about it we must, unfortunately. I did want to take a moment to examine some of the coverage Duke has gotten in the immediate aftermath of their title as it compares to UNC’s last year. This is not a post to gloat or gripe, but just to opine on the rivalry, as we often do here.
The first item business I wanted to address was the clear difference in local newspaper coverage given to Duke vs UNC’s title last year, pointed out by any number of sports blogs. Note the picture below.
At first glance I kind of figured this was a late-night press run issue, with UNC blowing out Michigan State from the start and Duke-Butler coming down to the wire, so maybe a paper like the Observer wasn’t able to put together their layout in time? But apparently that wasn’t the case, as John Robinson, editor of the Greensboro News & Record, notes:
I bring it up because of this comparison of the Charlotte Observer’s front pages from 2009 and 2010, which was posted on Twitter by KT Wall. Last year’s is apparently a wrap around the paper, as opposed to the front page, which is pictured here. This year, the “Duke wins” announcement is in the promo box above the nameplate.
The fact is, though, a UNC win is much bigger than a Duke win to advertisers. We produced an eight-page special section supported by advertising when the Heels won. This year? Not so much. Interest by advertising isn’t there.
Now, let’s also bring another interesting part to the equation: while Duke is largely ignored back at home in North Carolina, on the national scene they’ve garnered the open advertising support of the most powerful behemoth of them all, Nike, who ran the full-page ad appearing at right in last week’s Sports Illustrated, in addition to having this logo appear in several other publications:
As The Dagger points out, Nike isn’t afraid to align itself with certain polarizing athletes, but it’s interesting to see them putting on a campaign that would be so difficult for anyone other than Blue Devil fans to love.
To me, each of these things communicates a few things clearly about both schools in the rivalry. North Carolina, billing itself as always as the University of the people, is clearly the local favorite, a school that advertisers and fans aren’t afraid to throw their support behind because they feel like they represent a winning tradition and a broad fan base. I would probably even venture to guess that UNC has a bigger national fan base than Duke does - so why then does Nike go out of its way to praise the Devils when Carolina probably represents just as much to the Nike brand, if not more, than Duke does?
The answer seems to be that Duke is fully embracing its role as the smug, self-congratulatory program everyone loves to hate. The perception of their program has already been at this point for years, and if they couldn’t garner sentimental support in this of all years - with what really could be seen as a very likable team that showed hard work, team defense, toughness and resiliency - then they may as well not even try. Duke-Butler was a huge ratings draw in the NCAA final this year not only because it was an incredible game (though probably largely due to that reason) but also playing up the David-and-Goliath aspect of the matchup, with Duke fans largely grateful to play the role of the swaggering, trash-talking Goliath (note that I said “fans” there, not the team). Nike is not only making the relatively small Duke fan base happy with this kind of advertising, but pumping Duke back up as a villain - I have to think that as good as they are with their advertising, Nike created this campaign with a backlash in mind, not just in spite of it.
And at this point I think Duke fans are more than happy with that role - they’re fine with you hating them, as long as they’re still on top. UNC fans probably like to convince themselves that they’d rather be liked than be good, but we aren’t used to being one or the other, as was the case this year. In the battle of good versus evil, people aren’t too excited to root for the good side unless they can be expected to at least have a chance to win. With Duke all-too-eagerly embracing it’s role as villain, it’s time for UNC to step up again next year and take them down a notch. It seems like, both nationally and locally, people don’t just love us for being Carolina - they love us for beating Duke.