The day after Thanksgiving in 1984, reigning college football champion Miami was leading Boston College by four points in the last six seconds of the Orange Bowl. While BC had the ball, it was on the 48-yard line. BC quarterback Doug Flutie dropped back, dashed to his right, and flung a “Hail Mary” pass which receiver Gerard Phelan cradled in the end zone, miraculously winning the game.
That play was named one of the “top 25 defining moments” in the hundred-year history of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and it made an impression on the millions of Americans who saw it on television. Flutie became a household name, won the Heisman Trophy a few weeks later, and led his team to two more bowl games over the next two seasons. And over those same two years, applications to Boston College increased 30 percent, while donations flooded in.
The crisp after-effects of Flutie’s pass triggered much discussion and theorizing about the impact that sports victories can have on a university. Colleges became enamored with the idea that media exposure from athletic wins could produce a larger, better applicant pool, which would improve the school’s academic standing. Additionally, proud alumni would contribute to the university.
Since then, various schools have trumpeted a “Flutie Effect” when application surges followed athletic success. For example, Georgetown University saw a 45 percent leap in applicants between 1983 and 1986 after its men’s basketball team reached the Final Four three times, winning the national championship in 1984. When Northwestern University won the Big Ten football championship in 1995, student interest spiked 21 percent. After George Mason University’s basketball team reached the Final Four in 2006, the student bookstore raked in $876,000 of sales in just ten days. Then the matriculation rate among prospective students tripled.
Gonzaga University invoked the Flutie Effect after its men’s basketball team reached the Elite Eight in 1999. Its Bulldogs returned to the NCAA tournament almost every year since, and the office of admissions reports a 320 percent increase in applications between 1997 and 2014. Annual donations jumped from $9.7 million in 1997 to $16 million in 2000.
In 1994, Robert Murphy and Gregory Trandell found that when a school increases its winning percentage by .250, there is a statistically significant increase in applications. In 2000, Thomas Rhoads and Shelby Gerking reported that alumni contributions increase 7 percent per student when a football team wins a bowl game, or if a basketball team makes more than two NCAA tournament appearances.
In 2008, Rutgers University professor Randall Smith determined that “breakthrough seasons” in athletics sometimes produce small academic bumps, but not reliably or sustainably. That same year, Jaren and Devin Pope compared application and enrollment rates at 330 NCAA Division I schools between 1983 and 2002, and found that significant athletic victories increase applicants by 2-8 percent on average, depending on the sport and level of success. Harvard’s Doug Chung fanned the flame with a 2013 study reporting that when a university’s football team goes from mediocre to excellent, applications typically increase by 18 percent. Students with lower-than-average SAT scores place more importance on a school’s athletic success, he found, but victories also encourage applicants with higher SAT scores enough to raise the overall quality of the pool.
None of this, however, is easy to engineer. The NCAA commissioned two studies that determined there is no correlation between spending more on athletics and winning more. Nor does increasing coaches’ salaries demonstrably affect on-field success or yield increased revenue.
According to Boston College administrators, the school had been gearing up for years to increase enrollment and become a nationally recognized establishment. While Doug Flutie and his winning team provided welcome exposure, the college was already increasing faculty, financial aid, and other features intended to boost student interest. In sum, BC invested in academics so it was ready for its big break.
This is one of five sidebars to John Feinstein’s feature article “The Passion and Pitfalls of Giving to College Sports”