When a football team wins a national championship, the effects ripple far beyond the reaches of the playing field. This is the first in a series at Warchant.com examining how a championship season can help an athletic department, a university, and a community as a whole.
Florida State's Marching Chiefs had just finished a concert in Costa Mesa, Calif. on January 5 at a gathering of the FSU Alumni Association three days before the BCS Championship Game in Pasadena. FSU president Eric Barron announced to the crowd he would commit $25,000 to help replace some of the Chiefs' instruments in honor of his wife, Molly.
After the concert, an athletics' booster approached Barron and asked how much it would take to replace the Chiefs' sousaphones, according to Tom Jennings, FSU's vice president for university advancement and president of the FSU foundation.
"We got into that conversation," Jennings said, "And the president said 'Well, the cost about $8,000 apiece, there are about 25 of them, so about $200,000.' She said 'Done.'
"So here's primarily an athletics donor coming to an event of the most visible part of the college of music, the Marching Chiefs, and deciding to support them partially because she was moved by the performance, but partly by the president's leadership."
The effect of a championship season can't always be measured by a university, but it can be felt. There are tangible benefits, like increased donations, extra exposure for schools, and sometimes, an increase in applicants.There are also benefits that can't be measured, such as a heightened sense of school pride.
"I think there's both a tangible and an intangible benefit," said Jason Simon, vice president and partner at SimpsonScarborough, a marketing research and strategy firm that works with higher education institutions. "Schools are attempting to try and measure that. They would like to say this is why it's important to have an athletic program and why it's part of an institution. It's a struggle to balance that with the core mission of the institution."
Simon has worked in collegiate athletics and in academics. He worked in North Carolina State's athletic department and also worked in marketing and communications at the University of California. He said there's strong anecdotal evidence for athletics success helping universities as a whole.
Jennings said success from FSU athletics can have notable positive effects on the university's academic fundraising efforts, though other factors play a bigger role.
The FSU Foundation and the alumni association often plan events around football games, when members of the Florida State community converge on Tallahassee. The president's box at Doak Campbell Stadium can hold up to 400 people, and game days in the fall are a prime opportunity to develop relationships with donors. A handful of donors to the university also received tickets to the championship game in exchange for their generosity.
The FSU Foundation had received $39.1 million in gifts and pledges for the fiscal year 2013-14 through March 31, while it had received $34.9 million at the same point a year ago. Jennings cautioned against attributing much of that increase to athletics success, pointing out that the majority of those donations were received well before the Seminoles' national championship in January. But Florida State also saw increases in donations to athletics after its first two football championships in 1993 and 1999.
"It's hard to link them specifically to those national championships, but I can tell you it didn't hurt," Jennings said. "It was a point of pride. People give to causes that they want to be associated with, that they want to feel pride in."
Florida State also saw an increase in undergraduate admission applications late in football season. According to information obtained by Warchant.com in an open records request, there were 4,565 applicants for the upcoming fall semester in December of 2013 and 7,491 in January of 2014. FSU had averaged 3,426 applications in December and 6,109 applicants in January from 2011-13.
Overall applications for the fall of 2014 were up 7.4 percent from the previous three-year period, from an average of 46,131 to 49,555 this year. But Janice Finney, FSU's director of admissions, didn't think FSU's football season played a major role in that increase.
"There's nothing that stood out in my mind that we saw a tremendous surge," Finney said. "I think that's just a happenstance."
FSU's deadline for undergraduate admissions was on Jan. 15, a little more than a week after the championship game on Jan. 6. Simon said that while athletics can play a role in creating interest for applicants, it has a stronger effect at smaller schools, like Florida Gulf Coast and Butler. Simon also said it's difficult to measure whether any additional applicants would be the caliber of students an institution is looking to attract.
But Florida State football can keep alumni attracted. Jennings said athletics is a conversation point with about two-thirds of academic donors, even though fewer than 10 percent of those who donate to FSU donate to both academics and athletics. Those conversations can be easier to have when FSU football is competing at a high level.
"Just like it's important to land a five-star recruit, it's just as critical to get that top-notch faculty who will attract tens of millions of dollars in research grants, or that student who goes on to create the next great thing or great company," Simon said. "I think the good programs are finding a way to leverage that to tell a broader story."
Football is far from the biggest factor that drives donations to academics, but Jennings has studied the effects of FSU's football seasons on academic giving. The economy is the biggest determining factor in academic donations, as the FSU Foundation tries to target donations of $100,000 or more. Unlike athletic donations, gifts of that size usually come in the form of appreciated assets, Jennings said.
But football can create opportunities for FSU and generate momentum in a way that's difficult to imitate elsewhere at the school.
"Those national championships definitely sparked a sense of pride among the entire constituency," Jennings said.
That's one benefit that can't be measured or replicated. Football is far from the only factor that benefits FSU academically, but nothing else can affect FSU academics in quite the same way.
"I think that because football is the dominant sport here, there are few things that universities can do to bring together 85,000 people on a Saturday afternoon or evening where they're cheering for your school," Jennings said. "How do you build institutional pride after people have graduated?
"Our alumni are between 21 years old and 104 years old. So what ties them together? Some people are Republican, some are Democrats. Some are Protestant, Catholics, some Jews. Some are from the south, some from the north. They all love the Seminoles. We can all agree on Saturday afternoon that we're rooting for the Seminoles."