Going deep

Colorado’s two big universities are obsessing over the urgent need to put millions of dollars into improving their men’s football programs and facilities. Doug Flutie is why. Here’s my take for ColoradoBIZ.

The most famous touchdown pass in college football arced over Miami’s Orange Bowl field for only 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 impossible, magnificent, 48-yard heave continues to resonate, and right now, it’s 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 late 1984 game, suggesting to many that there is no marketing scheme more effective than a heroic football moment. 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 admission applications from out-of-state students. 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.

The theory received a credibility boost this summer when an academic researcher, 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 to 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 nervousness across higher education. For the first time since the 1990s, college enrollment declined in the U.S. this past recruiting season (by 2 percent). 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, suggesting legitimate alternatives for achieving career success now exist. The 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 is 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 from the playbook just as the clock is ticking 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 from Georgia and Texas.

But a question academic leaders might want to ask (you know, just to cover the bases), is: at what cost? Is cultivating a semi-professional football program really the best way – or, as some seem to believe, the only way – to successfully market higher education? Could the millions of dollars used to build new stadiums and training facilities and to pay coaches be directed toward other marketing efforts that offer a superior return on the 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 amounts of money into a single marketing channel – televised football games – seems like a low-percentage, high-risk play. Kind of like a Hail Mary.