Sports biz: Going deep

The most famous touchdown pass in college football history arced over Miami’s Orange Bowl field for seconds before settling into the arms of the Boston College wide receiver Gerard Phelan in a breathtaking last-second finale. But the echo from Doug Flutie’s impossibly magnificent, 48-yard heave continues to resonate, and right now, is especially loud in Colorado.

“The Flutie Effect” is the nickname college athletics leaders use to describe the off-the-field impact of one of the greatest plays ever. Admission applications to Boston College soared by 30 percent in the two academic recruiting seasons following the 1984 game, suggesting there is no marketing scheme more effective than a heroic moment in football. Similar upswings have occurred elsewhere after college teams produced instances of on-field glory piped by ESPN and FOX into America’s living rooms. Boise State’s wild comeback victory over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl propelled the Idaho college into national prominence and led to a spurt of out-of-state student applications. The list goes on, so much so that “The Flutie Effect” is considered to be all but scientifically affirmed. Succeed on the football field, ideally in dramatic fashion, and the freshmen will come a’ flocking. 

The theory received a credibility boost this summer when Harvard Business School’s Doug Chung published a research paper titled “The Dynamic Advertising Effect of Collegiate Athletics.” After studying relationships between on-the-field athletic records and student recruitment patterns, Chung concluded there is a legitimate and positive link. Among his findings: Schools that go from mediocre to great on the football field enjoy a nearly 18 percent increase in applications.

To boosters, these statistics justify big financial investments in football programs. Along with other benevolent spillover impacts, like alumni goodwill and the donations it encourages, a gridiron-inspired applications surge is seen as a valid reason for supporting men’s football.

In Colorado, the “Flutie Effect” is in full roar. Its influence lorded over a recent Denver Post article that chronicled efforts by the University of Colorado and Colorado State University to secure millions of dollars for new football facilities. Behind the efforts is faith that these investments will help lure out-of-state students who pay lofty tuition fees.

The bid to restore national prominence to the state’s two largest college football programs comes against a backdrop of rising anxiety across higher education. For the first time since the 1990s, college enrollment declined in the U.S. by 2 percent this past recruiting season. Internet-delivered learning alternatives that threaten brick-and-mortar education are beginning to gain traction and scale. Some thoughtful people are even questioning the value of a college degree at large, citing legitimate alternatives for achieving career success. Former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett recently published a book critiquing “the broken promise” of higher education. And a 2011 Pew Research Center survey showed 75 percent of adults now believe college is too expensive for most people.

With these storm clouds rising, a throwback to 1984 and Doug Flutie sound irresistible. The “Flutie Effect” offers a neat, accessible formula. Build a competitive football program, snag a prime-time slot on ESPN and dust off a Hail Mary as the clock ticks down. If CU or CSU can achieve that harmonic convergence of events, then yes, the data suggest there might be solid upside in attracting high school seniors nationwide.

But a question academic leaders may want to ask (just to cover the bases), is: at what cost? Is cultivating a semi-professional football program really the best way – or, as some believe, the only way – to successfully market higher education? Could the millions of dollars used to build new stadiums and training facilities and pay coaches be directed at other marketing efforts that offer a superior return on investment?

I don’t know. I happen to like college football. A lot. I’m a CSU alum and a Rams fan. It’s just that, at a time when the foundations of higher education are under siege, putting huge sums of money into a single marketing channel – televised football – seems like a low-percentage, high-risk play. Kind of like a Hail Mary.