Diagnosing the ‘Flutie Effect’ on College Marketing

Boston College, after one of the most dramatic plays in collegiate football history, benefitted with a dramatic upswing in applications. Other colleges have experienced similar upswings from sports success. In a new study, Doug J. Chung demonstrates the reality behind the "Flutie Effect," named after BC quarterback Doug Flutie.
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.

“I am hesitant to say schools choose to invest in athletics just because of the spillover effect into academics”

"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."

    • Roger E. Cole
    • Alumnus, HBS Club of Connecticut
    Great article! The business of college sports is a fascinating topic and Prof. Chung has expanded our understanding of it. I'm looking forward to more work on the topic.

    • Cheri Thomas
    The "Flutie Effect" also has an impact on economic development and property values. There is a cottage industry (literally!) in providing weekend homes around some of the big football schools, but the property values rise and fall with football success. I have friends who have such a place in Oxford Mississippi. Values soared when Archie Manning was there. When he graduated, the team's success fell off, and property values plummeted.
    • Joe Nowlan
    • Business writer-editor
    Interesting article on Boston College. And well done for avoiding the "it's all because of football" backhanded compliment, an analytical trap into which others have fallen.

    Do keep in mind, though, that it is now 29 years since that Flutie play. Obviously, Boston College has made a number of effective decisions that have enabled it to sustain the momentum that Flutie et al gave it.

    And don't leave out the "Monan Effect." Former BC president J. Donald Monan, SJ, made a number of shrewd academic and administrative decisions that -- while receiving less fanfare than athletics -- had major positive influence on BC's growth, let alone rise in applications.
    • C Stevenson
    • Alumnus, Va Tech
    Great awareness, brand advertising must be the key element here not just football success. While their was a "Vick (Mike) Effect" after Va Tech in applications after the 2000 National championship game, there was also a significant bump (admissions told me ~2X, but not verified) after the shootings. Sadly, any advertising, postitive or negative, athletic/or significant event (even tragic) appears to impact applications. I think it is a result of how Va Tech, overall, handled such a tragic event, that the brand appears to have been enhanced certainly not damaged.
    • Mike Fitzsimmons
    • VP/COO, YMCA (Ann Arbor, MI)
    a more recent, and possibly more dramatic example of this theory could be Gonzaga University. I'm a west coast native, grew up in northern california in the 1950's, and I did NOT know where Gonzaga was located when they hit the NCAA basketball radar. Post John Stockton.
    • Chip Ellis
    • Financial Consultant
    "sporting events generated an estimated $2 billion in revenue and $1 billion in profit in 2010" What??? Is this a 50% gross margin or a 50% bottom line? If gross margin, then what is the bottom line after all costs are included (allocated)? Anecdotally it appears that college sports are a financial looser supported by fans and alumni and contribute little to the schools' main purpose, which is to educate.
    And in the so-called developing countries, its still a selective and a tough choice to first make sure that your chosen field is going to provide your bread and butter before you can even think of making that choice to forage into other disciplines, for which your inclination and passion to pursue might be stronger! a sad and true situation tis' as it continues to influence a young minds' free will decisions
    • Flutie Fan '86
    • Alumus, Boston College
    Go Eagles. Go. In all sincerity, BC continued its "Ever to Excel" ways at The Heights even AFTER Doug moved on, including the days of now current NFL QB Matt Ryan and numerous NCAA hockey championships. Did the "Miracle in Miami" help? Sure, but I had chosen to attend two years before the ball landed in Gerard Phelan's hands. All in all, the fact remains that BC is really just an outstanding institution of higher learning and athletic accomplishments that kids gravitate to. Go BC, beat ND.