Football wins may boost academic reputations

Dan Zehr / Austin American-Statesman /


College football coaches might have more to worry about than the high expectations of their faithful fans. A big season might help enhance their universities’ academic reputations, too.

According to a working paper published this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, winning on the field also increases donations, applications, academic reputation, in-state enrollment — and incoming test scores.

Now, keep in mind that the academic and enrollment benefits — while statistically significant — are modest at best, according to the study’s authors.

“There are effects, but they’re not so large you’d want to run a huge deficit on the team” to chase more victories, said Michael Anderson, an economist at the University of California-Berkeley and the author of the study. “You definitely still want the team to break even.” Consider it a bonus for having a team that wins more than it loses, he said.

Still, it wasn’t exactly what Anderson expected to find.

While he knows how Cal’s team is doing in any given season, he’s not a big college football fan. He just needed a good example of an often-misapplied economics methodology, called propensity score design, to use with his graduate students.

Football fit the bill. Generally speaking, the methodology allowed Anderson to match teams of similar quality using bookmakers’ odds, eliminating outside factors and focusing solely on the results of the games. He then examined how the results affected outside metrics such as donations, applications and incoming test scores from 1986 to 2009.

He found that all of those measures ticked up the first year after a school’s football team had a big season. Winning tended to have a stronger impact in the major football conferences.

Anderson cautions that the study was never intended to address broader questions about college football, funding for athletic programs or how all of that factors into academic and other university outcomes. Nor does the research suggest that a winning season means the same thing at every university.

In fact, unexpected victories or a big swing from a bad to a winning season tended to result in a greater impact on the non-football criteria. In schools where fans expect nine or 10 wins as the baseline for a successful season, though, the impact of a solid winning season might not carry as much weight.

“At Texas, you’re expected to win,” said Michael Granof, a University of Texas accounting professor. “If you have a 9-4 season, that’s not too hot around here.”

Granof is a longtime skeptic of huge university athletics budgets. Only a handful of the largest athletics programs can support themselves, he said, and even fewer actually contribute back to the academic side of the university.

“Professional-type athletics is just a horrible business model for universities,” he said. “Whether there is a transfer (to academics) or not, at best it’s pretty small and it can only happen at Texas, Ohio State, Michigan and schools like that. Other than that, athletics are heavily subsidized.”

But, Granof noted, success on the field can often pull in large donors who start giving to athletics programs and end up giving even more to the university at large. And after a big season, he said, he has no doubt that “revenue and spirit will increase dramatically at a university.”

The University of Texas, for example, reached that zenith when the Longhorns beat the University of Southern California in January 2006 and clinched the BCS national championship. By the next fall, the university saw a 14 percent jump in first-time freshman applications, according to school’s Office of Information Management and Analysis.

But, as UT football coach Mack Brown can tell you, the standard for success is pretty high. A nine- or 10-win season won’t completely erase the sting of a couple of tough years on the gridiron.

The year after that big jump in UT applications, the number of first-time freshman applicants dipped, and year-to-year application growth rates haven’t approached double digits since.

A solid 10-win season “wouldn’t matter to a Texas,” Granof said. “But when Baylor goes .900, it’s the biggest thing since they allowed dancing. It’s a huge difference.”