Would Colleges Be Better Off Without Football?

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Everything we think we know about college football's impact on students' grades, graduation rates, rankings, and school finances adds up to this: Football might be bad for some colleges

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Reuters

When college football's final bowl games are played in the coming weeks, they'll be a coda to a season defined by scandal. There was the demise of Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who tried to cover up evidence that his players had broken NCAA rules by trading memorabilia for money and tattoos. There were the revelations that a convicted ponzi schemer and University of Miami booster had lavished millions on dollars on cash, cars and prostitutes for school's players. There was the nightmarish sex abuse scandal at Penn State. The list, sadly, goes on.

It's hard not to wonder: Is college football really good for college? Taylor Branch delivered a tour de force take for The Atlantic this year on the injustices suffered by big time collegiate athletes. But what about the rest of the university? What does football culture do for the students who don't play every Saturday? What does football do for schools' finances? Their academics? Their reputations?

These are questions economists have been plumbing for years. Here's a taste of what they have to say.

DOES COLLEGE FOOTBALL MAKE SCHOOLS RICHER OR POORER?
Short answer: It enriches the powerhouses, but the larger story is mixed.

When it comes to raw earning power, college football programs are pretty evenly split between haves and have-nots. The media tends to focus on powerhouse schools such as the Universities of Alabama, Michigan, and Texas, which rake in tens of millions of dollars from ticket sales, TV deals, and merchandise. But those teams are just one part of a much larger and more complicated picture.

In August, the NCAA released a financial breakdown of college athletics programs from 2004 through 2010. In those years, hardly more than half of the roughly 120 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the old Division 1-A, generated a profit from football. Those teams netted a median gain of $9.1 million. Among the programs stuck in the red, their median loss was $2.9 million. So for elite football schools, the game is a cash cow capable of subsidizing less remunerative sports. For the gridiron also-rans, it's just one more expense.

By and large, economists haven't focused on direct revenues. Instead, they've tried to probe the common claim by university administrators that alumni are happier to donate when football teams win. More than a dozen studies have tried to put that folk wisdom to the test, but the jury's still out. For instance, a 2004 study by University of North Carolina at Charlotte professor Irvin Tucker found that better records and bowl appearances could boost alumni giving. Looking at data from dozens of big conference schools, he found that, over a six year period, a 10% jump in winning percentage, an extra bowl game, or extra appearance in the AP coaches poll appearance could increase donations by 1%. On the other hand, a 2001 paper that examined the behavior of thousands of individual alumni donors found no such relationship.

For public universities, though, there's a crucial audience to consider other than alums: legislators. In 2003, UMBC's Brad Humphreys looked at the relationship between gridiron glory and appropriations by state lawmakers. He found that winning teams received more generous treatment come budget season, especially if they went to a bowl game or won a major in-state rivalry match, such as the annual Iron Bowl between the University of Alabama and Auburn. "A successful football season might increase state appropriations by 5% to 8% in the following year, and a team with a respectable losing record might garner a 2% to 4% increase, other things equal," Humphreys concluded. "Very bad teams -- those that win only 1 or 2 games -- get a smaller increase in appropriation in the following year."

Ultimately, the biggest problem with treating college football as a financial investment is that pouring in more funding doesn't guarantee better returns. Before his days in the White House, former Office of Management and Budget Peter Orszag was part of a team commissioned by the NCAA to analyze the impact of athletic spending on colleges. Looking at data from 1993 to 2001, his study found that spending more on football didn't lead to a more profitable team. It also didn't lead to additional alumni giving. Why not? Possibly because that teams that upped their funding didn't necessarily improve their records. Nor did a better record guarantee increased revenue. So schools can spend all the money they want in the hopes of becoming the next LSU. It just doesn't mean they'll get results.

IS COLLEGE FOOTBALL GOOD FOR A SCHOOL'S REPUTATION?
Short answer: Winning teams could lead to more applications and higher college rankings.

For many schools, then, it might be tough to justify a football program strictly in terms of dollars and cents. But there's another, less tangible benefit: marketing. Schools tend to view their football programs as giant billboards. It's nationally televised advertising. And there's a pervasive belief that a big win on the field can lead to a surge in student applications. There's even have a name for the phenomenon: The Flutie Effect.

In 1984, quarterback Doug Flutie led Boston College to an upset win over reigning national champs the University of Miami, capping the game with an awe-inspiring, 60-yard hail Mary touchdown pass, still regarded as one of the greatest plays in sports history. Over the next two years, applications to Boston College jumped 30%.* Northwestern University saw a similar spike in student interest after its highly improbable 1995 Rose Bowl run. So did The University of Florida after it won titles in basketball and football in 2006.


Those kinds of seasons, of course, are rare. That's why fans still talk about them decades later. But research suggests that the Flutie Effect may also occur in regular old wining years. In one of the most highly regarded studies on the topic, a team from the University of Pennsylvania and Virginia Tech looked at how winning affected applications at big time football and basketball schools between 1983 and 2002. It found that football programs that finished in the AP Top 20 saw 2.5% more applications the next year. A national championship drove between 7-8% more. Schools in the top twenty also had higher enrollment rates. The extra applications came from students with high and low SAT scores alike, meaning a win on the field gave schools a chance to improve their academic credentials.

Students aren't the only ones who get drawn in by the hype around a bowl run. Academics take notice too. In 2010, a group of researchers investigated the effect of football success on a school's peer assessment score in U.S. News and World Report's annual college rankings. It found that finishing strong in the year-end rankings could have the same effect as a 42 point boost in SAT scores. "Football school" might be an insult in the ivory tower. But oddly, fielding a good team just might boost a school's academic reputation.

IS COLLEGE FOOTBALL BAD FOR ACADEMICS?
Short answer: Winning teams appear to be bad for grades, but good for graduation rates.

Of course, reputation is one thing. Performance is another. In terms of academics, football culture appears to be a mixed blessing for universities. In a working paper released earlier this month, professors from the University of Oregon tracked how students' grades were influenced by the school's football success. Not just student athletes. All students. The team used their own institution as the guinea pig. The Oregon Ducks' seasons over the past decade had ranged from middling to superb, which allowed the group to see how students reacted in good years and bad.

The results weren't pretty. When Oregon won more, men's grades dropped relative to women's. When they lost, men's grades recovered. In a survey that accompanied their grade analysis, 28% of male students reported drinking more when a team won. About 20% of women said the same. Shotgunning a celebratory postgame beer, it seems, isn't conducive with studying for an economics final.

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But even if tailgating might sink the GPAs at your local Beta Theta Pi chapter, it might also convince some of its brothers to stick around for graduation. Like many issues surrounding college football, the relationship between school-wide graduation rates and football prowess is still a bit murky. But recent findings suggest that winning on the field might actually increase the number of students who earn a degree.

There are three camps on the issue. The first subscribes to a theory known as "football fever." It's pretty much what it sounds like. The phrase was coined in 1992 by University of North Carolina at Charlotte professor Irvin Tucker (see above), who at the time found that graduation rates were lower at schools with strong football traditions, as students ignored their studies to party. But his findings were eventually challenged. In 2003, Patrick Rishe of Webster University published a paper finding no significant link between big time sports success and graduation rates. Then, just one year later a pair from the University of Southern Mississippi found that a better football team actually improved freshman retention rates. They called their model "football chicken soup," arguing that students simply felt more comfortable and connected to a university that celebrated sports. Interestingly, Tucker later adopted their theory. In a 2004 study, he took a new approach to the data using additional measures of success. This time, there was a positive link between winning and academics. For instance, a 10% increase in winning percentage over six years pumped up graduation rates by 2.1%.

The theory for why was intuitive. Football might be an expensive distraction from academics. But when push comes to shove, students just like sticking around to root for their teams. Even if it means tanking their econ final.

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*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the 30% increase in applications was over one year. It also incorrectly stated that Doug Flutie led Boston College to a win over the University of Miami in the 1984 Orange Bowl. While the game was played at the Miami Orange Bowl stadium, it was not the actual bowl championship game. Flutie's pass, however, was nonetheless miraculous.  

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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