Later this week, the Boise State football team will play its annual spring scrimmage. The Broncos are three months removed from their third win in the Fiesta Bowl. Immediately after that game, university President Bob Kustra told a KTVB-TV reporter the victory would have a positive impact on the school.
“Applications spiked by 40 percent after those last two Fiesta Bowls,” Kustra said. “Guess where they’re going this time?”
It turns out there's a lot of research that suggests there are practical benefits for colleges that have top level football programs.
The Flutie/Fiesta Effect
In 2007, just after Boise State surprised the sports world by beating Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, Boise State saw a slight increase in applications.
Then in 2010, the year after the second Fiesta Bowl win, the university saw that 40 percent jump in freshmen applications.
Big spikes in applications after sports successes have been documented over and over at schools across the country. A big season for a football team, and to a slightly-lesser extent a basketball team, can bring in more applications the following year.
It’s sometimes called the “Flutie Effect” after Doug Flutie, who made a famous pass in a 1984 football game. His school, Boston College, saw a big increase in applications the next year.
You've probably already guessed why these application spikes occur: advertising. There aren’t many things a university can do to get its name lodged in more peoples’ heads than winning a high-profile football game.
Why Applications Matter
Well-established schools tend to grow conservatively. If applications go up by 40 percent, the student body won’t increase by nearly that much. That means the university can be pickier when choosing from applicants. That can be academically good for a school, according to Craig Depken, an economist at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. He studies college sports.
“Because I have a limited number of slots for my freshman class, now I have that many more applications and so I can draw the cutoff line for, say the SAT score to be slightly higher than it was in previous years,” Depken says. “Or I can make sure that I now have more of the top 10 percent of a graduating high school class.”
Since Boise State’s rise to national football prominence, average ATC scores and high school GPAs for new freshmen have inched up, and SAT scores have increased. A higher percentage of students are near the top of their high school classes. But the numbers are gradual, and there are so many other factors at play that it’s risky even to suggest correlation with football success.
Majoring In Tailgating
Craig Depken jokes that people only like one-armed economists because most economists constantly say, ‘on the other hand.’
While football success can mean higher-achieving students coming into a college, some don’t work as hard as they did in high school, once enrolled.
“I can talk about how the incoming freshman class has a higher SAT score, at the same time, in many places it’s been documented, that a successful football program tends to correlate with lower GPAs, that is lower performance in the classroom, especially amongst male students, but primarily just during the fall semester,” Depken says.
Even for good students, an exciting fall of football on campus can be a distraction that drops their GPA. A Boise State spokesman said the university could not easily provide the GPA data we requested, so it's not clear if this happens in Boise.
Can't Miss Next Season
Some studies say good football teams increase retention and graduation rates at their schools.
“It could be that some students don’t do as well as they could,” Stonehill College sports economist Sean Mulholland says. “But enough of the students want to stay around every fall, so the ones that are on the margin do just well enough to stay.”
Both retention and graduation rates have improved at Boise State over the past dozen years. In 2007, there was a noticeable jump in retention for students who had entered as new freshmen. And there was a noticeable jump in students graduating after four, five and six years.
Mulholland has done research on how football success affects a college’s academic reputation. He studied U.S. News and World Report’s annual college rankings. He says in years after a big football season, schools’ overall rankings tend to go up slightly. But the peer assessment scores go up more. The peer assessment scores make up a quarter of the overall ranking. They represent how people at other schools perceive a university.
Boise State wasn’t included in Mulholland’s original research because U.S. News classifies it as a regional school, not national. But Mulholland ran the numbers and says there's a correlation between Boise State's football wins and how it fares in U.S. News and World Report.
“They actually went from being higher than 64th to being ranked 48th the year after the overtime win in the Fiesta Bowl versus Oklahoma” he says.
Boise State also saw a modest increase in its peer assessment score that year.
Mulholland has two possible explanations for this phenomenon. First he says, it may be a matter of brand recognition, like with the application increases.
“There’s just kind of a constant hum in the background of Alabama, Alabama, Alabama or LSU, LSU or Boise State, Boise State, Boise State,” he says.
His other hypothesis is that people at universities make assumptions about the leadership of other universities that do noteworthy things. If a school does well at football, people at other colleges might subconsciously give the college president credit for hiring the coaching staff and assume that he or she is good at the rest of his or her job.
Do It For the Old Alma Mater
Football success can also affect a university’s finances. Perhaps the most intuitively obvious is alumni giving. It makes sense that alums would open their wallets after an exciting football season. This has been studied perhaps more than anything else discussed here. Yet, there is no consensus.
Depken says some studies suggest that people give less to the old alma mater after a highly publicized football season.
“I as an individual who might have been giving to the university in year one, might decide in year two not to give money, because I feel like, ‘well, the university is so much more popular it must be generating more contributions, or more grant monies or more distributions from the state Legislature,’” he says.
At Boise State, private gifts quadrupled between fiscal year 2006 and fiscal year 2010. That includes gifts from alumni, foundations and other sources. There was a particularly big surge in fiscal year 2010, which included Boise State's second Fiesta Bowl win.
Football And The Legislature
Research suggests football success can make state lawmakers more generous with funding. That has not happened for Boise State. That’s due in large part to the fact that much of the Bronco’s rise in football prominence coincided with the crash of the state's economy. But experts say there may be other reasons.
Depken says the increases in state funding are mitigated by several factors, such as beating a big in-state rival and how many lawmakers went to the school with the winning football team.
“If you have no alumni in the Legislature, it doesn’t seem to matter,” Depken says. “But if more of the Legislature is comprised of your alumni, and then you go out and beat the rival, then it tends to be that more money is steered your way.”
Of the 20-member committee that allocates funding to Idaho's public universities, just one is listed as a Boise State alum.
The Big Question
There are a lot of objections being raised about college football these days. They include growing concern about brain injury, players not getting paid while others make money off their work, reports of cheating and concerns that running a big-business sports team is inconsistent with the mission of a school.
So with all of that in mind, is football good for universities?
“I think most sports economists would tend to lean towards that on net, given all the pluses and the minuses, that it does seem to be, on average, a good thing,” Depken says. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t schools where football is not very useful or even feasible.”
He says some colleges have eliminated football programs for practical or philosophical reasons. But he says others have added football programs recently. Those include Depken’s own UNC Charlotte.
And Mulholland says the potential advantages of football can’t be realized by every college.
“With athletic performance, somebody’s got to lose,” he says. “So if you were investing millions of dollars in football and never doing well in terms of win-loss percentage, it would be difficult to continue to invest in that.”
Find Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam
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