Without a doubt, college athletic programs add a lot to a college’s brand, like it or not. They also help to bring a school’s name out into the spotlight, which in turn helps to bolster its clout when listed on the resumes of its alumni (again like it or not). In a purely logical world, colleges would be judged upon their academic merits alone (after all, isn’t that what you pay all that tuition for — an education?). But the world, along with the majority of potential college students, do not always follow the rules of logic. Instead they tend to make emotionally driven choices in life; yes, even when it comes to attending college.
I remember being in high school and watching college football games on television. Back in those days, I was a big fan of the University of Miami and hence applied (and was accepted) for admission. However I ultimately decided to attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University; in spite of my physics teacher (whose opinion I valued…but didn’t really heed) saying that he “had never heard of the place”. Obviously, I had opted for ERAU for academic reasons alone (being the nation’s premier aeronautical school and all). But ultimately it didn’t work out.
When it came time to transfer, I didn’t have a clue about where I wanted to enroll. I was back in Pennsylvania, and I was so focused on my relocation to Florida, that I never even looked into the colleges (relatively) nearby to my hometown. Penn State was too far away. I contacted Pitt, but it turned out that I had missed their application deadline. I heard that WVU wasn’t too far away, and luckily for me, they had no application deadline. There – problem solved!
How and why did I miss so many other colleges that were nearby — especially the colleges right in Pittsburgh (like Robert Morris, Point Park, Carlow, etc.)? Well perhaps it was because deep down, I wanted a distinctive, powerful name associated with my next college. Since I myself didn’t have a clear direction academically, at least the name of the school granting the degree would be one that most people were familiar with. But the simple answer is that those three were the only ones I immediately thought of — due to their prominence in college athletics.
Now I would never suggest that anyone choose a college simply because they have a big-name athletic program. But I’ve been on both sides of the equation. You do have some benefits gained by attending a college with a big-name sports program. Colleges that lack strong athletic programs tend to draw in a limited pool of applicants (the exception being colleges that have an excellent reputation for their academics). Take my alma mater for example: where application numbers are up 16% this year alone; an increase that school officials believe is a result from increasing coverage of the Mountaineers on national syndication channels such as ESPN. West Virginia itself is a socially homogenous state, well insulated by its mountainous topography. Without the ability to attract students from all over the country…the world even, WVU would be an entirely different place to study. So what happens eventually is that the institution becomes the brand that you create.
With the Penn State fiasco of last year unleashing a scare that there will be a significant decrease of revenue from the college’s athletic programs; it may be hard to shift focus away from ticket and paraphernalia sales primarily. But don’t discount the uncanny ability of college sports programs to reel in new students (especially out-of-state students to public colleges — who are cash cows) who have the chance to become donating alumni.
So while college sports have no direct reflection on a college’s academic merits; and most programs are unprofitable even, one of the key goals of marketing is to put your product out there to the consumer as a possible choice. Yes, you can fine tune all of the reasons as to why someone should purchase your product, but its a moot point if the product never pops up on their radar as a choice to begin with. What better way to do that than regular appearances of your school’s sports teams in the national media?