Winning college sports teams rarely attract more alumni gifts or better student applicants, Cornell report shows

Media Contact

Media Relations Office

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Last-second touchdowns and pennant-waving alumni are staples of the fall college scene. But while big-time athletic programs consume enormous resources on college campuses, they don't bring the rewards colleges expect -- more and better applicants and alumni donations -- a report by a Cornell University economist suggests.

The surprising results of the report contradict commonly held wisdom about the indirect benefits of successful college sports programs, and they may call into question the competitive spending spree among big-time college athletic programs across the country.

The report is by Cornell economist Robert Frank for the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. Frank is the Henrietta Johnson Louis Professor of Management and Economics at Cornell's Johnson Graduate School of Management and the author of The Winner-Take-All Society.

Based on Frank's review of numerous empirical studies, his report suggests that indirect benefits to colleges from successful athletic programs "are very small." However, those college football and basketball teams that win national championships sometimes do enjoy a two- to three-year spike in increased applications and donations, Frank notes.

The results are important, says Frank, because "big-time college athletic programs are expensive, approaching $50 million a year at some schools." Sports expenditures continue to escalate yearly and now exceed sports revenues at most institutions.

In an era of rising tuition, colleges are looking everywhere to trim rising costs. Most colleges that invest heavily in athletic programs don't get their money's worth, says Frank. If higher education policymakers and sports governing boards such as the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) were to create "incentives to reduce their spending on big-time athletic programs, [that] would free up resources for other purposes, at no cost either to alumni giving or the size of applicant pools," Frank writes.

To the naysayers, Frank admits that "alumni donations and applications for admission sometimes rise in the wake of conspicuously successful seasons at a small number of institutions, but such increases are likely to be both small and transitory." What's more, there is "not a shred of evidence to suggest that cuts in across-the-board spending on athletics would reduce either donations by alumni or applications by prospective students."

Don't get him wrong. Collegiate athletic programs do "generate numerous real benefits to the institutions that sponsor them," notes Frank. Quoting a report from Rice University, he mentions that athletics can unite diverse groups of fans and supporters by offering them a shared experience; give college athletes a "'phenomenal training ground in teamwork, leadership, discipline and goal setting'" and help colleges achieve their admissions diversity goals by attracting athlete applicants with diverse backgrounds.

But Frank warns that major college athletic programs need to reverse their "costly positional arms race" that has led to ever-higher spending. He advocates policies by such groups as the NCAA that curtail the race by offering large benefits to those colleges that do cut back.

"If all institutions cut back in tandem, competitive balance would be maintained," Frank writes. Doing so won't harm the expectations of fans because "it is much less the absolute performance of teams that matter than the fact of there being spirited contests. If absolute performance were of primary concern to spectators, they would have long since deserted college athletic contests in favor of their professional counterparts."


EDITORS: A call-in telephone press conference today, Tuesday, Sept. 7, on the reportÕs findings will take place from 11:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. EST, when Frank and Knight Foundation and Commission leaders will comment on the results and answer reportersÕ questions. Call (866) 206-6509 and, at prompt, give Conference ID#: 551338. The report, "Challenging the Myth: A Review of the Link Between College Athletic Success, Student Quality, and Donations," is accessible online starting Sept. 7 at: