The Money Bowl

The real competition in big-time college sports is over who can spend the most.

Money Well Spent?

Colleges generally justify spending on athletics by pointing out the intangible benefits that they bring to the universities. They argue that sports is the window through which many people come into contact with the school and that such exposure is worth a lot. (During most televised college events, each participating school gets one free minute to air a promotional message.) Athletic success increases the number and quality of university applicants, the argument goes, and improves alumni giving.

There is some anecdotal evidence that supports these claims. The idea is known as the Flutie factor, for the overall growth and academic improvement seen at Boston College after the school racked up victories on the football field under Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie in the mid-1980s.

Empirical evidence, however, doesn’t necessarily back up the theory that athletic spending leads to academic success. A study commissioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association in 2003 found no relationship — positive or negative — between increased spending on big sports and incoming SAT scores. However, the study’s authors admit that with only eight years of data, the period could have been too short to see the relationship. Most surprising of all, the study found no link between increased athletic spending on marquee sports and alumni giving, either to sports programs or to the university itself. (As Notre Dame alumni might tell you, the link between winning and giving — not part of the study — is likely a lot stronger.)

But it appears difficult to spend your way to victory on the athletic field. The same study found no statistical relationship between changes in operating expenditures on football and changes in winning percentages between 1993 and 2001. One possible explanation for this is that as long as everyone is increasing spending, the status quo is maintained. But the evidence shows that schools will have a hard time achieving academic success by spending their way to it on the sports fields. — J.McC.

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