The Relevancy of Irrelevancy – Is Lack Of Athletic Success Limiting The University?

Some of the comments on the recent Monday Morning entry got me to thinking about the possible effects of our lack of athletic success on the university as a whole. I have to believe that athletics is a big component of the marketing and identity of a university (and you can make a fair case that perhaps those priorities are in the wrong order). When we lose on the field/court, are we also losing out on prospective students and faculty and extra revenue? This entry does get a little long but that’s only because I found so much good information.

Back in July, the Charleston Daily Mail interviewed Jim Clements, the new president of West Virginia University. You can read the article titled “New WVU president sees athletics as marketing vehicle” here if you like, although the article is obviously WVU-centric which may not be of interest to SFN’s readers. But there are two comments that Jim Clements made that I would like to highlight.

The first quote is:

“We have a huge impact on this state. I think people at this university very much know that we drive economic development. We drive what happens in the community. We’re engaged across every county across the state. We understand extension and outreach. This university gets it. For me, this had everything. You sit there and say, “Wow, this university is known for national research programs, quality academics, but also high-visibility sports, which brings great awareness about other things on campus. It helps recruiting. It helps recruiting faculty. It helps marketing.”

The second quote is:

“I sat last December and watched the Meineke Car Care Bowl. I watched the Mountaineers beat UNC-Chapel Hill in a great game, as you know. I turned the channel a couple hours later and West Virginia University was at Ohio State University, which was undefeated at the time, in basketball and we crushed them. You have to sit there and think “What’s the marketing value of this to the campus to have two huge wins for recruiting students, for recruiting faculty, for recruiting administrators?” There’s a significant dollar value. This year we’re on ESPN how many times? Like, five? There is value to that.”

We can only hope that the new administration at NC State would have the same outlook on the contributions a successful, highly visible athletic department can make to the university as a whole. Sports can be that hook to pull a student, a professor or a business partner to the school that allows them to discover the engineering programs, the stat department, the vet school, etc.

There are a couple of recent in-state examples of schools that got a boost in applications and interest in the school after high profile accomplishments in athletics.

A November 2007 story in the Appalachian St school newspaper gives some credit to Appy’s win over Michigan at the Big House for a 25% increase in applications. The director of admissions, Paul N. Hiatt is quoted as saying

“Almost everyone is aware of the Michigan victory…athletics did bring a lot of focus to the university, but it also brought focus to all the other positive things that are happening here”

Davidson’s run to the Elite Eight also had a positive impact on the school. According to an article on Charlotte’s, Davidson saw a 13% increase in applications, a 17% increase in prospective students visiting the school and has also helped football recruiting. Here are quotes from director of admissions Dave Kraus

“Did it impact national interest for Davidson? Absolutely”

and from head football coach Tripp Merritt

“If you’re a young man or woman sitting in California or Iowa or Idaho watching us in the Elight Eight.. you have a tendency to get on line maybe do a little more research.. find out what you can about Davidson College”

Another article about Davidson points out that the average daily sales at the campus bookstore is $1,700 but had $35,000 in sales the first day Sweet Sixteen t-shirts were available. The school also saw a 1200% increase in transfer inquiries and even received applications despite being past the deadline.

One could make the argument that Appy and Davidson, being smaller schools, needed those athletics successes to put themselves on the map and that NC State was already on the map, and that is a fair point.

As a counterpoint, one of the reasons given for the firing of Lennie Barton as the Alumni Relations Executive Director was “the group was struggling financially and its membership had been stagnant for years”. How many of us have been reluctant to donate money to the university after years of mediocrity in athletics (combined with the recent scandals in the administration as well as the economy)? I know I fit that category.

For another look on the impact of athletic success on applications that includes bigger schools, a January 2008 study done by professors at The Wharton School and Virginia Tech that was to be published in the Southern Economic Journal (you can download the study here) found that “football and basketball success significantly increase the quantity of applications to a school, with estimates ranging from 2-8% for the top 20 football schools and the top 16 basketball schools each year”.

The study, using data from 1983 to 2002, found that for basketball, just making the big dance gives a school a 1% increase in applications the following year, a 3% increase for Sweet Sixteen teams, a 4-5% increase for the Final Four teams and a 7-8% increase for the national champ.

For football, the study found that schools ending the season ranked in the top 20 saw a 2.5% increase in applications the following year, a 3% increase for the top 10 and a 7-8% increase for the national champ.

And if I’m understanding it correctly, the study also finds that the effect diminishes after 2-4 years, so those Philip Rivers bowl games and Julius Hodge tourney bids aren’t helping us out any more. The study also looks at the SAT score range for the applicants as well as increases in admissions which you can read about if you are so inclined.

Here is a great article from Hawaii Business about the potential effects of Hawaii’s recent Sugar Bowl appearance that has some great information on George Mason and Boise State.

George Mason:

GMU president Alan G. Merten couldn’t put his finger on the dollar value of all the free publicity the school received, but school officials did have precise numbers on some of the results. In 2006, the school saw freshmen applications increase by 20 percent, while the number and size of campus tours for prospective students and parents nearly tripled. In addition, online registration to GMU’s alumni directory grew 52 percent, which resulted in a 24 percent increase in alumni e-mail addresses on file and a 25 percent increase in alumni activity.

Why is this so important? Easy: A proud alumni network is a generous alumni network. In 2006, GMU received more than $23.2 million in new gifts and pledge payments compared to $19.6 million the previous year. Donations to athletic programs increased by 25 percent, general scholarship support nearly tripled and unrestricted gifts to the university increased by nearly 45 percent.

Boise State:

Online inquiries from prospective students increased 135 percent, with the university’s graduate college receiving 10 times as many application inquiries compared to the previous year. Overall, resulting applications increased by 9.1 percent, which netted a 3.5 percent rise in enrollment. For the first time in its history, BSU’s student body exceeded 19,000.
Moneywise, the school foundation raised approximately $16 million for fiscal year ’07, the second highest total on record. So far, its $175-million campaign, initiated in 2006, has already collected $78.6 million. On campus, the university’s bookstore earned $1.75 million in profits in 2006, selling $752,000 in school insignia merchandise in December, a month before the Fiesta Bowl. The store’s previous best month was December 2004 when it sold $359,000 in merchandise before the team’s appearance in the Liberty Bowl later that month. For comparison, in 1997, the bookstore’s annual sales from school insignia items totaled just $220,000.

George Mason and Boise St are smaller schools but, as the article shows, the effect can be found in bigger schools like Missouri in 2007:

During the Tigers’ rise to No. 1 in the football polls, admission applications increased by 20 percent and donations pick up, too, on a pace to surpass 2006’s totals by $6 million.

The references to Doug Flutie in the Hawaii article led me to find this article in the Boston College Magazine that discusses the “Flutie Factor”

The number of applications to BC did increase 30 percent over Flutie’s junior and senior years.

At Georgetown University, whose men’s basketball team appeared in NCAA championship games in 1982, 1984, and 1985, applications rose 45 percent between 1983 and 1986. And freshman enrollment at Gonzaga University rose from 549 to 979 between 1997 and 2001, years in which Gonzaga’s men’s basketball team outplayed some of the nation’s powerhouses in the NCAA tournament. Were there other reasons for the rise of Georgetown and Gonzaga? No doubt, but they were not nationally televised.

BC does downplay the “Flutie Factor” as the article also points out that BC already had steady increases in applications (including a 9% increase in 1978 when the football team went 0-11) due to things like increased student housing and programs to build national enrollment. So there are obviously other factors involved but like the quote above says, “they were not nationally televised”.

With the mediocrity on the football field and basketball court, is NC State missing out on potential engineering students that are applying to Georgia Tech or Virginia Tech because they have good football teams? Is NC State missing out on money from donations and merchandise sales? Is NC State missing out on other publicity and marketing opportunities that come from athletic success? I think we probably are, what do you think?

And as the Hawaii Business article points out, “Why is this so important? Easy: A proud alumni network is a generous alumni network.”

About WV Wolf

Graduated from NCSU in 1996 with a degree in statistics. Born and inbred in West "By God" Virginia and now live in Raleigh where I spend my time watching the Wolfpack, the Mountaineers and the Carolina Hurricanes as well as making bar graphs for SFN. I'm @wvncsu on the Twitter machine.

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40 Responses to The Relevancy of Irrelevancy – Is Lack Of Athletic Success Limiting The University?

  1. Khan 11/20/2009 at 11:11 AM #

    It seems clear that careful analysis of the available data suggests that athletics play a critical role in the marketing of a university to the general public. But even throwing out all of the empirical data, one can draw no other conclusion. Good or bad, right or wrong, people watch college basketball and people watch college football, and that’s what they talk about. And that is the primary driver of their general perception of a university they otherwise know nothing about.

    Nothing against any other athletic programs, but basketball and football are the sports that are talked about in water-cooler conversations all over the country, and through those channels, people form their opinions about a university. Either you’re a relevant part of the conversation or you’re not. It’s just that simple.

  2. Moose Hunter 11/20/2009 at 11:21 AM #

    I have been preaching this for years now. Great article. This University has looked upon athletic success as a negative since 1990. Very gunshy ever since V. MAF tried to change it, but to no avail. This is why our next president has to embrace athletics and understand the power it brings or can bring.

  3. BJD95 11/20/2009 at 11:32 AM #

    Great article. Couldn’t agree more.

    Needless to say, I’m not in a very proud or generous mood as an alumnus right now.

  4. GAWolf 11/20/2009 at 11:39 AM #

    This is simply a known fact to anyone who lives in this world… it’s the hardlined “academics” out there who have run NC State into the ground who are the last idiots on earth who disagree with this concept.

    Marketing in today’s world is everything. Perception is reality. To say or think otherwise is foolish. Exposure is what kids want… both in athletics and academics. Academic exposure comes easiest through the athletics-based culture that drives Americans’ free time. It’s just a simple, simple reality.

  5. GAWolf 11/20/2009 at 11:42 AM #

    With that said. Someone should email this entry to Chancellor Woodward. It would clearly fall on blind eyes and deaf ears to send it to anyone else remotely associated with NC State University. And therein lies the problem.

  6. StateFoxer 11/20/2009 at 11:58 AM #

    Great post WV Wolf. I think this is a noteworthy quote from the Southern Economic Journal article.

    “Overall, these results suggest that schools that have athletic success are not receiving extra SAT scores solely from low performing students. The results also greatly strengthen the SAT results derived from the Peterson’s data. It appears that athletic success does indeed present an opportunity to schools to be either more selective in their admission standards or enroll more students while keeping a fixed level of student quality.”

  7. VaWolf82 11/20/2009 at 12:09 PM #

    Great article. I love the discussion about schools of all sizes all over the nation. There is absolutely no reason to doubt that athletic success would pay dividends at State as well.

  8. bradleyb123 11/20/2009 at 12:12 PM #

    I just don’t understand how Fowler keeps his job. Has anything gone right under his “leadership” of the athletics department? I mean, we’re not even graduating our athletes. Either be good at academics or athletics (or both). But we’re good at NEITHER. What will it take to get rid of that guy? It makes no sense. Unless he has some dirt on someone high up, and is grabbing them by the short and curlies.

  9. Gene 11/20/2009 at 12:25 PM #

    “And as the Hawaii Business article points out, “Why is this so important? Easy: A proud alumni network is a generous alumni network.””

    NCSU’s endowment is pitifully small at $500 million or so. I sometimes think of making a drop in the bucket to the endowment, but with the lack of leadership, I’m not sure if it’d be money well spent.

    From what I’ve read, since I’ve graduated in 1996, NCSU isn’t doing all that it can do to become better.

    I’d love for NCSU to have an engineering department that rivaled Ga. Tech or Univ. of Michigan, but we seem to be content to just be a good regional school.

    Boosting the amount of the endowment would help immensely to compete with other schools, but I guess I have an enthusiasm gap.

  10. choppack1 11/20/2009 at 12:40 PM #

    Think back to when you were applying to colleges – if you had an open what factors did you consider?

    Since I was about 10 years old – I had gone to a UT football game each year in Knoxville. I also had season tickets to Wake basketball when they played in the Greensboro Coliseum. I had been to the ACC tournament.

    Call me shallow, but I wanted to go to a school that had good academics AND good athletics in a major conference. As a result, I didn’t consider schools like App State or UNCC.

    For me, NC State was a good match when I applied in 1987 and decided to attend the school in 1988. They had an up and coming football team – and they had great basketball.

    However, right now – if you’re a big football and/or basketball fan – would you consider NC State if you weren’t a legacy? HELL NO. And like it or not, probably 50% of males like watching sports and will consider this factor.

    Let’s say you are a good student – you are looking at VaTech, Clemson and NC State. Let’s say that same student is a big sports fan…whose the first school you mark off the list from that 3???

  11. 61Packer 11/20/2009 at 12:58 PM #

    Dear choppack1,

    The good student who is a big sports fan will surely cross Virginia Tech, then Clemson off the list before applying to NC State.

    Why? IT’S DUH FUH-CILITIES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! WOOOO DOGGIES!!!!!!!!


  12. choppack1 11/20/2009 at 12:59 PM #

    Hell, let’s go this far…Think of every school in the BCS, if you were a sports fan which ones would you avoid.

    Iowa State
    Missippi State

    And that sorry NC State school.

    I’ll put it this way, if things don’t change (and I have no reason to think they will), I understand 100% if my son chooses not to pull for NC State. If he likes sports, I’ll understand if he doesn’t even consider the school.

  13. packheelbuffalum 11/20/2009 at 1:32 PM #

    I certainly want a successful Wolfpack athletics program, but I think the effect of athletics on the university varies depending on the focus.

    Successful athletic teams (those on TV?) do seem to garner general attention, and that should not be underestimated. Successful teams also often do have some positive impact on the number of applicants.

    But, when it comes to actual giving to universities, the record is, at best, mixed. Successful athletic programs often have little, if any, impact on giving to universities. In fact, some research shows that successful athletic programs may actually divert giving from general university funds to athletic-specific funds.

    Sports economist Andrew Zimbalist has written about this in a number of places. Some of which may be found with a quick Google. I found one link that is useful because it collects a number of sources, from Zimbalist and others. Most of the sources are about university giving, not so much about student applications, marketing, and so on.

    The link is on a blog about the UC Berkeley budget problems and the linked entry takes aim at Berkeley athletics. Still, I think the entry provides good material on the costs and benefits of college athletics.

    The URL:

    Scroll a little past the data tables, see the section titled “Selected Quotes and Reports.”

    (Perversely, I suppose it’s possible that these studies help justify the status quo. To be clear, I do not share that perspective!)

  14. old13 11/20/2009 at 2:03 PM #

    How many of us have been reluctant to donate money to the university after years of mediocrity in athletics (combined with the recent scandals in the administration as well as the economy)? I know I fit that category.

    I am one of those. I’ve not contributed any monetary support to anything NCSU since Foulup’s letter to the fans in 2005 and his comments about the “Lunatic Fringe” in 2006 with absolutely no reaction from the administration except to give him an excellence award (What a joke!). I suppose that we can hope that the new chancellor/administration will come on board with an attitude that all areas of NCSU, including athletics, should be managed to strive for excellence and act accordingly. I’m just very concerned that whoever comes to the post will be overcome by the same old “good-old-boyisms” and “Lee’s-golfing-buddy” types such that the status quo will not be impacted in any areas, much like what MAF encountered, which eventually drove her away. Until there is a real movement on the campus for change in the approach to running NCSU, nothing will change from where NCSU is now IMO. And until that changes, I plan to maintain my status quo on contributions to the university.

  15. packof81 11/20/2009 at 2:13 PM #

    “How many of us have been reluctant to donate money to the university after years of mediocrity in athletics (combined with the recent scandals in the administration as well as the economy)? I know I fit that category.”

    I am adamant about not donating money. I will not support poor performance and gross mismanagement with hard earned money I might need later. The leadership of the university doesn’t get it, at all. And some of them arrogantly proclaim there’s nothing to get. They are unresponsive to alumni and students, a mirror image of many politicians today.

  16. tootallorder 11/20/2009 at 2:26 PM #

    “How many of us have been reluctant to donate money to the university after years of mediocrity in athletics (combined with the recent scandals in the administration as well as the economy)? I know I fit that category.”

    Here’s another 8 year member of the WPC that won’t be donating this year. Thanks for the memories Lee.

  17. bradleyb123 11/20/2009 at 2:33 PM #

    Unfortunately, I like football too much to pull the plug on my WPC donations. I’ve paid off half of my LTR seats. As much as I’d love to boycott donating, I don’t want to give this up. If not for the LTR seating, I’d just buy tickets outside the gate. I’m afraid as soon as I stop buying tickets, we’ll show up with a great team.

    But I haven’t bought LTR seats for basketball. I just watch whatever basketball I can on TV.

  18. papackman 11/20/2009 at 2:54 PM #

    Excellent article. One cannot put a price on successful athletic programs and the relevancy to the university. The public relations and awareness is immeasurable. I was watching a movie from 1983 and there was a one-liner in the movie that mentioned NC State. IMO, it’s not a coincidence that this is the same year as our national championship. Whether the university heads want to admit it or not it is success in athletics that bring prominence to a university. Everybody wants to root for a winner and be part of a winning program!!!

  19. choppack1 11/20/2009 at 3:01 PM #

    packheelbuff – I wonder if they considered the amount of money generated at football schools which pretty much pays for the other sports – w/ the exception of men’s college basketball. Not to mention, whether they like it or not, it is a factor when looking at several institutions which are otherwise very similar.

  20. StateFans 11/20/2009 at 3:44 PM #

    This is one of the greatest things ever written on SFN.

    Dovetails very appropriately with BJD’s capitulation about a month ago.

  21. GoldenChain 11/20/2009 at 4:00 PM #

    While I do agree that sports (successful) do help a schools “profile” with the public, I also say that research grants, academic programs, getting the best professors, etc have nothing to do with sports. Some of the best colleges in America do not have D1 sports. Example? MIT, Johns Hopkins, University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon…all those schools are DIII.
    The failure of leadership at NCSU has been both academic and athletic for years now. I do think that the public sees athletics as ‘loser schools’ and ‘winner schools’. But the true academics don’t give a flip about that stuff.
    And believe me, (I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feeling) the schools of the SEC and Big East, Big 10/12 etc don’t show up on anyone’s list of most outstanding colleges (at least not the ones who are consistently good at sports). What is it about lipstick on a pig?
    Oh, and as far as admissions, when was the last year enrolment went down at NCSU? Heck, using that criteria the admins might want us to keep losing forever!
    Don’t get me wrong, I want us to win in the worst possible way.

  22. GoldenChain 11/20/2009 at 4:09 PM #

    Do let me hasten to agree that alumni giving for both academic and athletic funds is strongly connected to the public and visible success of athletics.
    Some of the older posters will remember a big media blitz that unx had back in the mid 80s (can’t remember the name of their catch phrase) and they are still enjoying the sucess of that to this day.


  23. WV Wolf 11/20/2009 at 4:45 PM #

    Thanks for the compliments, I appreciate that.

    packheelbuffalum and GoldenChain do bring up some good points, I absolutely agree that athletics certainly don’t drive everything on campus. Athletics isn’t the only tool you can use to promote and enhance your school but I definitely think NC State is not using that tool to its maximum potential.

  24. El Scrotcho 11/20/2009 at 7:10 PM #

    I think you would have a hard time making a case for even funding an athletic department if athletics success didn’t make a big impact on university awareness and perception.

    As far as I’m concerned, if we’re gonna suck as much as we’ve sucked in the last ten years I’d rather they convert every single scholarship to an academic one and stop pissing resources away.

  25. packalum44 11/20/2009 at 7:49 PM #

    Nail in the coffin. This is what athletics is all about. Wonder what the application numbers looked like in 1984…

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