Texas A&M Doesn't Need a Times Square Billboard to Congratulate Its Heisman Winner

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Give Texas A&M credit: Even in the money-saturated world of big-time college sports, the school has managed to find a new way to spend on its football program. This weekend, ESPN reported that the University and its athletic department are splitting the cost of a Times Square billboard congratulating their newly minted Heisman-winner, Johnny Manziel (a.k.a. Johnny Football, a.k.a. the guy with the most goofily American nickname in America) on his big accomplishment. Schools now mount expensive campaigns promoting their athletes for the Heisman as a matter of course. But paying big bucks to broadcast the win after the fact appears to be something new. On top of the billboard, which might easily cost tens if not hundreds-of-thousands of dollars a month, the ad campaign also includes full-page spreads in USA Today and the New York Times

Is this just the latest decadent financial decision by a college in thrall of its sports program? Or has Texas A&M engineered a savvy attention-grabbing ploy? My guess is it's a little bit of both -- a logical, but probably gratuitous decision by a school trying to boost its national profile. 

University administrators tend to rationalize their spending on big time sports as an elaborate marketing expense. Every Saturday kickoff is a reminder aimed at high school students, alums, legislators, and pretty much anybody else who cares to tune in that the school might be worth spending a bit of money on -- whether it's a tuition check, a donation, or a state budget line. And there's some evidence that their investment pays off, at least when their teams win. Studies examining the link between on-field dominance and alumni giving have reached mixed conclusions. But research has suggested that winning football schools tend to get bigger state appropriations. Perhaps more importantly, a successful season might also boost student applications. In a paper scheduled to be published in the Journal of Sports Economics, economists Devin and Jaren Pope found that schools that finished in the Associated Press college polls Top 10 saw SAT score submissions increase 6 to 8 percent. According to their calculations, that's similar to the impact of a University increasing its U.S. News & World Report ranking by half -- say, going from 50th to 25th or from 20th to 10th. In previous work, the team found that extra applications came from students with both high and low SAT scores, which gave schools a chance to pick out higher caliber students. (For a longer rundown of the economic literature about college football, check out my review from last year). 

Just as on field glory is fleeting, so is the boost to applications. In their most recent study, Pope and Pope found the impact of a single winning season fades fast over two to three years. But in an interview, Devin Pope said even that momentary bump could be a long term boon to a University: 

Even these short term boosts, one has to realize you get a set of better students, and you can start having some kind of rippling effects. They do better on the market, so your job placement looks a little bit better because you had better students. And now other people are looking at your job placement in the future and are more likely to apply to because of that. So I think you can start to have some of those tipping affects. Or you get better students, so they get better jobs, so you get better donations 20 years later. So even these kind of sugar highs for one or two years -- it's hard to quantify exactly, but they could be a big deal for a school.

None of this research says much directly about the impact of a Heisman award. But buzz is buzz, and Manziel's unprecedented win -- he's the first freshman to ever receive the honor -- is probably generating as much attention for Texas A&M as your run-of-the-mill BCS bowl appearance. All of this might argue in favor of the university's ad bonanza. The Aggies aren't exactly known for their year-to-year consistency on the gridiron, so they may need to make the most of their quarterback sensation while he's still around.  

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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