College Football and Student Quality: An Advertising Effect or Culture and Tradition?

Article excerpt

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Introduction

COLLEGE SPORTS HAVE ENTERED yet another round of the athletics arms race, and schools are again spending millions to upgrade their facilities. In just the past decade, the University of Texas has spent $150 million to remodel its football stadium, the University of Michigan spent $266 for upgrades including luxury suites and club seating, while Oklahoma State has kept pace with $165 million to spend on its programs (McCafferty 2006). Colleges are also allocating millions for coaching--the head football coach at a major state university continues to be the highest paid state employee--and the University of Alabama has upped the ante considerably with its recent hire at an annual salary of $4 million.

Proponents of such athletic spending justify the practice with reference to the general mission of the host college or university. Programs need to build bigger and better facilities in order to attract better athletes and coaches and to maintain fan interest and comfort at the games. This allows a program to be "successful," and success translates to more pride in the institution, which ultimately leads to benefits for the entire school. The list of presumed consequences of a winning program is long. Alumni give more to the academic programs of the college, corporate donations are attracted by winning football teams, and state legislatures open the checkbooks at appropriation time because of the successful football team. More students apply to the school, as do more out-of-state students, thus raising tuition revenues. The academic quality of the student body rises as better prepared students are drawn by the successful football program, and student retention and graduation increase because the undergraduate experience is enhanced by the presence of big-time intercollegiate athletics. Overall, the college rises in the annual rankings as it can be more selective when crafting a first-year class, percentages of alumni supporting the school similarly rise, and student satisfaction with the undergraduate experience is increased.

What ties together these disparate positive outcomes attributed to big-time athletics is the branding the institution receives via its sports programs. Schools come to be associated with their football and basketball teams and that increases the public's awareness of the institution and, hopefully, the school's academic programs and offerings. The school receives attention in the media, especially during the postseason play of football bowls and the NCAA basketball tournament, which further advances public awareness. Hence the claim of an "advertising effect" arising from big-time intercollegiate sports success.

Whether a successful program can deliver as promised is an empirical question and one that the academic literature is just beginning to answer. As might be expected, answers to date offer mixed support, in part because of a relative paucity of data, widely varying definitions of athletic "success," and what I will argue is some conceptual confusion surrounding the definition of the advertising effect. I address each of these via an analysis of one aspect of the advertising effect--how big-time football programs are related to the academic quality of the first-year class. After reviewing previous studies of athletic branding and advertising, I make a crucial distinction between the sports culture and tradition at the college or university and the more variable performance on the field.

A pooled panel analysis of football performance at the highest levels of intercollegiate competition shows that both aspects of the football program do indeed influence the credentials of students entering the institution, but the payoff in student quality from any sports advertising is small and can be fleeting.

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Literature Review

STUDIES OF THE IMPACT of football on the university writ large were first published over 20 years ago. …