The Flutie Factor

by Russ Roberts on March 30, 2006

in Education, Sports

It is commonly believed that Doug Flutie’s November 23, 1984 touchdown pass to Gerald Phelan against Miami capping an thrilling 47-45 victory as time expired was responsible for boosting applications to Boston College in subsequent years. I even stupidly told someone yesterday that my memory was that applications had doubled or tripled in the next year.

Turns out they only went up 16% in 1984 and 12% the next year. This article from a Boston College magazine does a nice job chronicling the facts and how I wasn’t the first to misremember them or misrepresent them. It also questions the existence of any bump at all:

So was the Flutie factor real? The answer is that Doug Flutie increased
              applications to Boston College, but not nearly as much as the public and the media believe or as academic planners at some institutions seem to hope in justifying the millions of dollars they invest in football.

Applications to BC did surge 16 percent in 1984 (from 12,414 to 14,398), and then another 12 percent (to 16,163) in 1985. But these jumps were not anomalous for BC, which in the previous decade had embarked on a program to build national enrollment using market research, a network of alumni volunteers, strategically allocated financial aid, and improvements to residence halls and academic
           facilities, says John Maguire ’61, Ph.D.’66.
The chairman of the board of Maguire Associates, a well-known enrollment management consulting firm, Maguire headed admissions at BC from 1971 to 1983. "Doug Flutie cemented things, but the J. Donald Monan factor and the Frank Campanella factor are the real story," he said, referring to BC’s former president and executive vice president.
Michael Malec, a BC sports sociologist who has studied the relationship
           between athletic success and enrollment, notes that in 1972 the College of A&S opened its doors to women, and in 1974 the University acquired three residence halls at Newton College and built three more residence halls (the Mods, Edmond’s, and Rubenstein), adding Walsh Hall in 1980, effectively doubling the pool of applicants and the housing capacity. "Doug Flutie made some terrific contributions to BC," said Malec, "but his personal impact on enrollment during
   this period has been exaggerated."

Applications to BC had in fact increased 15 percent in 1973 (the year after Fr. Monan took office), 13 percent in 1975, and 14 percent in 1976—years when football was successful but not remarkably so. Between 1970 and 1983, in fact, applications to BC increased in 12 of 13 years, no matter the fortunes of the football team, and they nearly doubled (6,605 to 12,411) between 1970 and 1978…

In a 1994 article in the Economics of Education Review, BC economist Robert Murphy reported on a study of 55 universities with I-A football programs (BC was not in the study group) that found a positive and statistically significant correlation between a winning football season and increases in applications. But the predicted application increase based on the research was a modest 1.3 percent tied to a three-win improvement over the previous season.

It’s always good to watch out for post hoc ergo propter hoc. The true BC story casts doubt on the presumption that George Mason is going to see a big increase in applications in the aftermath of the success of the basketball team. But a lot of people had never even heard of George Mason before the past two weeks. It will be interesting to see how it unfolds. Go, Patriots!

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Ivan Kirigin March 30, 2006 at 8:11 pm

To be blunt, I hate university sports. The main reason? Two words: opportunity cost.

Take UCLA as an example. They needed to build more parking space. On campus, there are two fields: the football team's practice field, and the intramural field. Guess which was made unavailable for over a year in order to add parking?

Mind you, this is in Westwood, where land is not cheap. Sports facilities directly compete with academic facilities as far as space, and certainly as far as attention of the student body.

For all the loving memories of UCLA's glory days under Wooden, I can't help but feel it is all a big waste of time — especially considering how amazing the LA Lakers are. Add the option for independent sports clubs, and the need to combine universities with sports establishments shrinks.

Brad March 30, 2006 at 8:40 pm

I think you should wait for Doug Flutie to retire before calling his career into question.

John P. March 31, 2006 at 10:23 am

While I don't want to rain on GMU's parade, I agree with Ivan on this one. Plus, the studies (apparently) do not take into account the *quality* of the added applicants.

Don Mynack March 31, 2006 at 12:17 pm

While I can see your point, Ivan, you fail to mention that college sports are largely self-supporting, at least the ones people care about (i.e. football and basketball), particularly at a school as large as UCLA. Intramural sports, while a diversion for students, are probably not.

Athletic department budgets have ballooned over the years, true, but that is mostly due to many other sports, the so-called minor sports (basically anything other and football and basketball) taking a larger and larger share of scholarships and related support efforts (staff and facilities). These sports basically eat all the revenue produced from the huge football and basketball contracts, and return little, it any, revenue back to the pot.

Now, if you want to make an argument that all universities should be private entities, and receive much less financial support from the state, I could buy that. Particularly where you end up with situations like in my home state of Texas, where two universities (University of Texas and Texas A & M) receive the lion's share of state appropriations, despite educating a smaller and smaller proportion of the state's college students. This, coupled with a "deregulation" of tuition rates, has produced a result whereby those two universities' systems are swimming in cash, at the expense of just about everybody else. Not good.

Getting back to Russell's point, GMU's run in the NCAA's got me to check out their web site, start looking at grad school options, and seeing all the cool stuff they offer in IT. Unfortunately, they don't offer grad degrees on an online basis, so I have to look elsewhere. However, I would recommend that my friends in the D.C. area (I have a few), look at GMU as an option.

Ivan Kirigin March 31, 2006 at 12:55 pm

Don Mynack,

Actually, my point wasn't that they lose money, but that they displace other more important activities. Other departments also make lots of money — computer science will bring in more research funds than many humanities.

Further, I would argue that intramural sports are better for the student body than elite sports. More people play, and intramural rivalries are very healthy. In addition, no students go to college for intramural sports — so there is no distraction.

I can tell you how many times I've seen athletes beg for extensions on assignments. This is after they get free special tutors to effectively do their homework — much more attention than anything in the honors program (at UCLA).

That is why I transferred :-D

I went to NYU which is also a large school, with a very diverse student body. T-shirts with “NYU football” are literally a joke. Their honors program was awesome and undergraduate research is very common.

Yep March 31, 2006 at 2:55 pm

I went to UTexas @ Austin. The school is somewhat odious, but my objection the the athletics there was that the Great State of Texas was running a football team. Why does my state government need to run a football team? And not pay the players?

Mr. Roberts, please forgive my ignorance, but is George Mason public or private?

Ivan Kirigin March 31, 2006 at 3:11 pm

GMU @ wikipedia


I'm beginning to find Wikipedia to be faster than Google for very directed searches.

Broocks Wilson March 31, 2006 at 6:33 pm

The University of Texas at Austin makes enough money of its football program to support itself. Season tickets and donations from alumni are much greater given the overall prowess of the UT football program, which can often leave left over money that goes into the education side of things.

This leads me to Mr. Kirgin's point. If an athlete doesn't want to make the most of an oppurtunity provided to him, that's his own fault. However, sports scholarships do often provide people who wouldn't otherwise have the ability to goto college to attend college, and not just athletes. Because huge programs in basketball like those of Duke and Villanova or say in football, like that of Notre Dame or USC, give the colleges alot more money to put into scholastic scholarships etc.

superdestroyer April 2, 2006 at 8:12 am

Many of the commenters need to research big time college sports better.

The first concept to understand is that the Footbal team at UCLA or UT-Austin is not really controlled by the university. It is controlled by the Athletic Foundation that is a separate, not-fort-profit corporation than the university. How else do you think that the head football coaches can receive a greaer salary than the governor and sign shoe deals and get paid for appearing on television.

Second, Athletic Departments are generally money losers. If not for the transfer of stuents fees from the university to the Athletic Departmnet, donations from alumni and hangers-on, and loans from the university that will never be repaid, almost all Athletic programs would lose money. They almost never pay for themselves. They also divert contributions from the academic side of the university to the Separate Athletic Department. See the story of Vanderbilt University eliminating its separate Athletic Department and taking control.

rostow April 2, 2006 at 2:26 pm

I'm surprised no one mentioned the fact that student athletes usually dilute the academic value of the degree at top schools. Taking students with lower test scores and grades just to have a decent team is common even at the very top schools.

Assume for argument's sake that having champion ditch diggers would put an extra 20 million a year on net in a university's pocket but that champion ditch digging teams require accepting hundreds of students with lower qualifications and making sure that colleges have easy enough majors to get them to graduate. Exactly how does a school such as UCLA (or more pointedly Chicago or MIT) really benefit except financially from expanding the ditch-digging team? If this is the argument, why not have running a casino and card-dealing as majors at CMU or Stanford if it could be shown that such activities brought more money to the school?

I can only hope GMU becomes good enough that it can afford to fall back into basketball mediocrity.

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