Many critics within higher education opine that nationally televised college football works against the goals of college: The big games distract the campus community from scholarship, and they refocus the energy of the university from learning to entertainment.
But a university that succeeds at football or basketball on a national stage can reap glorious benefits — in student recruitment, alumni donations and national brand.
Here is a guest post from LSU Chancellor Michael Martin, reflecting on what LSU gained in its bowl-championship run.
It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s that you played in the big game.
Although LSU did not prevail in the BCS national championship game Jan. 9, there are some very distinct benefits to making an appearance in the national championship game and having the kind of outstanding football season needed to get to the big game.
First, there is the national exposure that comes with a successful football season. During this season, nearly all of LSU’s games were nationally televised, including the Southeastern Conference championship game and the national championship game. That means that week after week, people across the nation got a chance to see what LSU is about. It also means that the university’s promotional television spot aired repeatedly to a national audience. That is exposure that LSU could never have afforded to buy – especially in this era of budget cuts and diminished state support for public higher education.
Then, there is the chance to promote the university’s academic message in conjunction with its athletic message. Throughout the football season, and especially in the weeks leading up to the national championship game, LSU was able to promote its research and academic messages to the media, to fans across Louisiana and to national audiences. That messaging included an extensive marketing campaign in New Orleans, where the BCS game was held; targeted marketing to LSU season-ticket holders; a window-cling campaign aimed at businesses and restaurants in New Orleans; a Web-based campaign; and a list of LSU’s academic accolades on the back of a small LSU poster, distributed in the New Orleans and Baton Rouge newspapers, that fans could carry to the game.
Also, there is evidence that playing in the big game equates to an increase in student enrollment and in donations to the university. After LSU played in the 2003 BCS national championship game, freshman enrollment at LSU rose 5 percent. After playing in the 2007 BCS game, freshman enrollment increased 12 percent. And after both BCS appearances, donations to the university increased.
Currently, applications to LSU are up nearly 10 percent from this time last year, with out-of-state applications leading that growth with an increase of 16 percent over this time last year. Of course, a variety of factors could be contributing to this growth, but LSU’s outstanding football season and multiple TV appearances could only have helped to attract interest from prospective students.
And finally, there is merchandising. After LSU’s previous appearances in the BCS national championship game, the university earned an additional $1 million in merchandising revenues, proving that the national exposure and success of the football team creates new fans and inspires existing ones to wear the university’s apparel. And when people wear LSU’s name and logo, that provides even more exposure for the university.
Losing a big game is always difficult, but even when a university loses the national championship game, all is not lost.
It has often been said that big-time college athletic programs are the “front porches” of their universities – the thing everyone sees first. The better the front porch, the more people stop to look. This year, LSU had an awful lot of visitors to the front porch. Now, we hope they’ll step inside.