Here is a guest post by William Latham and Kenneth Lewis, economists at the University of Delaware.


Kentucky Wildcats Anthony Davis smiles during practice for their men's NCAA Final Four basketball game in New Orleans. (REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

Sports boosters are fond of saying that success in intercollegiate sports programs benefits aspiring colleges and universities by raising the profile of the schools, which, in turn, increases the number of students who apply and the funding available to support high-quality academic programs. As a result, the boosters say, schools can select higher quality students and can hire better faculty. So if athletic success can be achieved through large-scale spending on athletics, such spending is justified, the boosters say, in order to raise the academic quality of the institution. If that logic is true then we should find correlations between athletic expenditures and athletic success and between athletic success and academic quality.

As we approach the peak of “March Madness,” we thought it would be interesting to see if the tournament results to date provide evidence to support the conjectures about expenditures, athletic success and institutional quality. Using software we developed, the Intercollegiate Athletics Comparison Tool, we ran some comparisons.

1. Does money buy athletic success?

Spending a lot of money helps a lot. Consider the evidence for a relationship between expenditures and athletic success among the teams in the Men’s Sweet Sixteen. Annual expenses for basketball for the Men’s Final Four, the rest of the Elite Eight, and the balance of the Sweet Sixteen in gold, green and red. All but one of the 16 teams spent more than the average NCAA Division 1 school ($2,610,000). The one exception – Cinderella Ohio University — spent less than $2.2 million.

Three of the final four teams spend the first, second and fourth amounts per team among the Sweet Sixteen. The “Kentucky Arms Race” will come to a head on Saturday when the two biggest spenders, Louisville ($13,337,000) and Kentucky ($12,355,000), battle.

2. Is athletic success associated with overall academic quality?

Running the numbers also shows that athletic success does not seem to imply higher quality, at least not for the Final Four. Looking at rankings of overall institutional quality as measured by US News & World Report in 2012 , the “Kentucky Arms Race” does not seem to have had an effect. The ranks for the elite eight’s losing teams, Baylor (ranked 75th), Florida (58th), Syracuse (62nd) and UNC (29th) are far better than those for the final four. Of the final four, just one, Ohio State (ranked 55th), is in a comparable academic league. Louisville is ranked 106 spots away from the team it beat last weekend (Florida) and at 124th, Kentucky’s athletic prowess does not seem to be translating into academic accolades.

3. What about women’s sports? Are the same relationships evident?

For spending the answer does seem to be the same: among the women’s teams, the big three, Baylor, Tennessee and Connecticut, outspend everyone else. Three of the number 1 seeds are among the top six highest spending teams in the Sweet Sixteen. And all of the Sweet Sixteen except St. Bonaventure ($1,043,000) are above the Division 1 average ($3,504,000). However, for the women, athletic success does seem to imply higher academic quality, especially for the number 1 seeds, Baylor, Stanford (ranked 5th), Notre Dame (19th) and Connecticut (58th). In addition, the average rank for the women in their Sweet Sixteen is nearly 20 points better than then men’s average rank (68 vs. 87).

The results for both men and women lend support to the existence of a positive relationship between spending by universities’ on athletic programs and athletic success. However, strong support for the connection between athletic success and academic quality is only found for the women. Perhaps very talented women athletes select schools based on the quality of the education because they have much more limited opportunities in professional sports.