UCF's Fiesta Bowl

UCF’s Fie$ta

J.J. Worten’s miraculous one-handed catch against Temple University meant millions of dollars to the University of Central Florida brand. So did Will Stanback’s crushing tackle to cause a game-winning fumble against the University of Memphis. And Blake Bortles long, late touchdown pass to a streaking Breshad Perriman not only spelled doom for regional rival South Florida, it helped land Orlando’s UCF on an unprecedented national stage.

Thanks to those memorable plays—among many others—a season of heart-stomping finishes brought UCF’s Cardiac Knights, as university President John Hitt called them, a dream 11-1 regular season and a berth in their first New Year’s Day mega bowl game.

On Jan. 1, the Knights played Baylor University in the 43rd Annual Tostitos Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz. Forget the scoreboard. In terms of name recognition and image building, UCF tallied huge points.

Did you know that UCF is the youngest university ever to play in a Bowl Championship Series (college football’s highest level) bowl game? Or that UCF ranked second among BCS teams for the highest graduation rates for its football student-athletes, behind only Stanford University? Not to mention the university is the second largest in the country based on its enrollment of more than 60,000. The nation found out while also learning about UCF’s medical school. Just for starters.

The onslaught of attention UCF received during its surprise run magnified in the days leading up to the bowl game, even outside of sports. Three days after the announcement of bowl match- ups, The Wall Street Journal creatively renamed all 35 bowl games with famous movie titles. The Tostitos Fiesta Bowl between Baylor and UCF was dubbed the “Sharknado Bowl.” Not great. But WSJ’s average weekday circulation exceeds 2 million. Not bad.

During the game, and the commercials for UCF, an estimated 12 million viewers tuned in, roughly the game’s audience last year.

In that sense, even a loss is a win.

Of course, not all was roses—or rather chips and salsa. In hard dollars, UCF had to sell 12,000 to 14,000 tickets priced from $105 to $268, just to break even on the trip. Although teams get more than $17 million for the BCS game, their conferences divide the money among all league teams. In 2011, the University of Connecticut lost $1.6 million at the Fiesta Bowl.

An easy price to pay? Absolutely—in the form of everything from increased student applications to greater alumni donations.

The Fiesta Bowl was a “chance to show the country what UCF is about,” exclaimed its president. Touchdown.