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.
And they have a recent model to work from. Baylor, never a traditional football power, found itself in the spotlight last year thanks to quarterback Robert Griffin III's remarkable Heisman-winning season. The school told ESPN the trophy was "worth $250 million in extra donations, increased ticket sales, licensing fees, sponsorship deals, an expanded deal with Fox Sports Southwest, and higher corn dog sales." It also apparently earned the University about "$14 million in media mentions in the month RG3 won the Heisman." Whether or not those numbers are reliable, you can rest assured that Texas A&M will do all it can to reap a similar windfall.
There's an obvious counterpoint, though: Heisman awards already generate an absurd amount of publicity. Baylor didn't need to buy a billboard or a newspaper ad to generate media attention once Griffin showed up to accept his trophy and show off his Super Man themed socks to the TV cameras. Presumably, every high-school-aged male or state rep who cares about college sports has heard of Johnny Football by now, and a big ad in the middle of New York City won't do much to further the cause. Nor will the extra news cycle the school is earning from articles like the one you're reading right now.
And so that's why even if Texas A&M can justify promoting the heck out of its big star, putting his face in some of the most expensive advertising space in the world does, indeed, seem a bit over the top.
Update 4:32 pm: A reader points out that after declining to share the cost of ad buy with ESPN, Texas A&M's vice president of marketing and communications told a local paper that the billboard cost $40,000. So, it may turn out that the full-page newspaper ads, which in the Times can easily cost upwards of $100,000, may have been the bigger part of this splurge.