College Athletics: Marketing’s Secret Weapon

ImageWhile we’re busy taking copious notes, writing essay after essay, and having study sessions with friends, we often lose sight of what brought us to Boston University – or any university – in the first place.  What made us take an interest in our universities?  What made us research the school further and take a tour, or look into its programs because we’d heard the university’s name before? 

When it comes down to it, our college search was driven by brand recognition.  Boston University is a brand.  It sells the name of the university and all of its programs, along with the characteristics one might associate with it.  Just like corporations across America, universities and colleges must develop marketing strategies that persuade students to apply.  But aside from word-of-mouth and facts, what can a university do to promote itself?

A recent study by the Harvard Business School study points to collegiate athletes as having a “dynamic advertising effect”.  The study found that when a school’s football team increased its skill level from mediocre to great, the number of applicants rose by 18.7 percent.  The study says that this effect is similar to what would result if tuition were decreased by 3.8 percent or if higher-level faculty were hired and paid 5 percent more. In a country that places an emphasis on the rankings and desirability of educational institutions, these numbers are extremely significant.

Interestingly, this study is not the first to take notice of athletics’ effect on applicants.  Back in 1984, Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie made a Hail Mary that resulted in not only a tremendous win, but also in a 30 percent increase in applications just two years later.  Since then, the effect has become known as the “Flutie Effect.” But what does a game-winning touchdown have to do with college admissions?  Think about it: impressive athletics leads to media coverage, media coverage leads to name recognition, and name recognition leads to people researching and later applying to those very colleges.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule.  Many great colleges have mediocre football teams and some, such as Boston University, don’t even have one.  But think about those colleges that are big players in the NCAA world – Penn State, University of Michigan, Ohio State.  These colleges are famous to us mostly because of their successful athletics teams. These schools have benefitted from their athletic abilities to gain brand recognition and advertising.  With successful athletics comes interest from media, from a wide variety of citizens, and from a huge number of potential students.  Keep rooting for your team – you’re rooting for your school’s marketing department, too!

-Shannon Clark

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