From Harvard Business School Newsletter, “Working Knowledge: The Thinking That Leads” (April 29, 2013)
Diagnosing the "Flutie Effect" on College Marketing
by Sean Silverthorne
Boston College's greatest marketing campaign lasted about six seconds.
It's called the "Flutie Effect." In a 1984 game against the University of Miami, BC quarterback Doug Flutie threw a last-second "Hail Mary" pass 48 yards that was miraculously caught for a game-winning touchdown—a climactic capper on one of the most exciting college football games ever.
The play put BC on the map for college aspirants. In two years, applications had shot up 30 percent.
Ever since, marketing experts and school deans have acknowledged the power of the Flutie Effect's ability to transfer a successful collegiate athletic program into a hot ticket for admission. Georgetown University applications multiplied 45 percent between 1983 and 1986 following a surge of basketball success. Northwestern University applications advanced 21 percent after winning the Big Ten Championship in football.
"The primary form of mass media advertising by academic institutions in the United States is, arguably, through their athletic programs," says Harvard Business School Assistant Professor of marketing Doug J. Chung.
Oddly, little academic research has been done on the subject. And even some BC administrators would rather credit educational excellence than a gridiron miracle for its popularity among high-school graduates.
Enter Chung, whose recent research paper, The Dynamic Advertising Effect of Collegiate Athletics, shows how on-field heroics can benefit schools by increasing both the quantity and the quality of students they can expect to attract. The paper has been accepted for publication by the journal Marketing Science.
His findings include:
When a school rises from mediocre to great on the gridiron, applications increase by 17.7 percent.
To attain similar effects, a school has to either lower tuition by 3.8 percent or increase the quality of its education by recruiting higher-quality faculty, who are paid 5.1 percent more than their average peers in the academic labor market.
Students with lower-than-average SAT scores tended to have a stronger preference for schools known for athletic success, while students with higher SAT scores preferred institutions with greater academic quality. Also, students with lower academic prowess valued the success of intercollegiate athletics for longer periods of time than the high SAT achievers.
Even students with high SAT scores are significantly affected by athletic success—one of the biggest surprises from the research, Chung says.
Schools become more academically selective with athletic success.
Although a boost in applications is a good outcome, there are a variety of other reasons why schools invest in sports. A primary reason, says Chung, is to further the NCAA's commitment to diversity and morale. Schools also build sports programs because it can be financially beneficial to do so—intercollegiate sporting events generated an estimated $2 billion in revenue and $1 billion in profit in 2010. Winning programs prosper in diverse ways including ticket and product sales, alumni donations, and TV contracts. Chung is currently studying the effect of winning on revenues.
The rise in application interest, the subject of the current research, is probably the tertiary reason. "I am hesitant to say schools choose to invest in athletics just because of the spillover effect into academics," Chung says.
Why would sports success spark greater admissions interest, even among academically superior students? Although not part of the study, Chung guesses that a school's fame in athletics increases general awareness of those institutions—brand advertising, if you will. Another reason: sports-heavy American culture. Prospective students might find it appealing to be part of a college's social whirl around a winning program.
Chung was naturally attracted to the research because the Flutie game was the first American football game he'd ever watched. "I saw this game live on TV with my father when I was growing up in Kansas," he says, "and have been a big fan ever since."