Dear HC Athletics, Follow the Money: A Series
Published: Friday, February 14, 2014
Updated: Monday, February 17, 2014 15:02
When I turned 11 years old, my grandfather gave me two gifts: a purple Holy Cross T-shirt and money. I associated the color purple as a girly color and never heard of Holy Cross, so I threw the shirt in the back of my closet never to be worn. Later, as I did every year on my birthday, I spent all my money at the Boston College bookstore. We can all giggle and gaggle at the irony now, but there is an important lesson to this story that Holy Cross can greatly benefit from listening: sports branding!
Fast forward to my senior year in high school, I am interviewing at various small, liberal arts colleges like Holy Cross. There was one big outlier, which was of course Boston College. Here’s a school with a combined 14,000 undergrads and graduate students. When I knew I liked the small liberal arts school atmosphere, why did I apply here? “Boston College has a mystique about it,” I told my parents and peers. I could not explain it then, but I understand now. I grew up watching Boston College sports on television with my family and friends. I was at their jam packed first ACC football game ever played in 2005 vs. Florida State. I remember having parties cheering their basketball team during their March Madness runs. Boston College was part of my life, way before college was even a consideration for me. They were a brand that did not just sell to me strong academics and a pretty campus but memories that I have generated with them, since I was a baby. This resulted in copious amounts of birthday money from me, and a nice $60 check with an additional number on their admissions applications.
Boston College made a decision in the 1970s to develop itself as a sports brand. You may have heard of the Flutie Factor. According to Boston College’s Spring 2003 magazine article, Phenomenology, after Doug Flutie’s famous Hail Mary pass that won Boston College the Orange Bowl in January of 1984, that fall the number of student applications in the admissions department rose 16% and then another 12 % the following year. To be fair, this was in an era when Boston College was expanding their student body and so actively recruiting a wider national base, but they cemented this idea that becoming a nationally known school in sports does aid a school’s prestige. I was a product of their investment in sports by spending all my birthday earnings there for years, as well as a nice $60 application check and an additional number on their admissions stats.
College sports are entertaining, and millions of people are fans. The jersey with the school’s logo is the greatest marketing tool that a school has. When alumni see their school doing well at a big time sport, this can generate affinity for their alma mater resulting in donations for the school. When a school’s sports team plays on national television consistently, the national population is familiarizing themselves with the school, and so the school establishes a wider fan base. This means more money for the school: ticket sales, apparel sales, television contracts, and even companies like Nike and Adidas competing for better sponsorship packages. This also affects admissions. The more people that know about Holy Cross, the greater the prestige, which means more applications and a lower acceptance rate.
George Mason and Butler University are two prime examples of schools that invested in their basketball programs and received great results for their school’s prestige. For those of you not familiar with the NCAA’s March Madness tournament, it is a basketball playoff consisting of the top 64 teams in the nation. Teams are ranked 1 to 16, 1 being the best and 16 being the worse. George Mason Basketball was seeded #11 in the 2006 March Madness tournament. They made an unexpected run to the Final Four. According to Bill Pennington’s article in the New York Times, “In the first admissions cycle after the Final Four appearance, the number of out-of-state applications to George Mason rose by 54 percent … Visits to the admissions department’s web site increased by 150 percent.” The article even mentioned that there was a 25% increase in alumni donations the next year. Butler University was seeded #9 in the March Madness, and the team made an unlikely run to the Championship game in 2010. According to Jonathan Mahler, a reporter for the Indiana Gazette, his article, titled “Fast Track for Collegiate Credibility,” the national exposure from Butler University’s run in the tournament generated precisely $639,273,881.82 worth of publicity for the school. That statistic does not include the rise in merchandise and ticket sales, or charitable giving. In addition, applications next fall increased by 41% from the previous year. These are staggering numbers!
Television is the main broker between a college’s sports and their national audience. Football and men’s basketball hold the biggest television contracts, followed by men’s college hockey. Holy Cross needs to invest more money into one of these sports, if we want to see our school as a sports brand. I believe our athletics department is watering its potential down because of the way we have chosen to invest in our sports up to this point. I will explain myself in my next article, along with the pros and cons of investing more of our available funds in each of the three sports listed previously.