Kempner: Close counts in horseshoes and, maybe, UGA football

6:19 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018 Business
Georgia fans react in the second half during College Football Playoff National Championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Georgia Bulldogs didn’t win, but playing on the national sports stage can provide other benefits to universities. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Maybe the university affiliated with the Georgia Bulldogs won something after all from the college football championship game, no matter what the stupid scoreboard said.

Some economics professors say winning lots of games in a big college sport and landing on a national stage can goose up university admissions applications, improve the quality of admitted students and boost financial donations.

I imagine the University of Georgia had an early inkling of the potential upside.

Before the Georgia-Alabama game, UGA’s homepage was plastered with staff and alumni memories of the school’s 1980 national championship.

And right below it? Links for how to financially “Commit to Georgia.”

Where there’s an emotional connection, money isn’t far behind.

But will it really pay off for big, beautiful UGA?

Free advertising

Some, according to Michael Anderson, an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley who has studied such things.

Expect “a modest bump” in applications, he told me. Plus, a bigger jump in financial donations, particularly for contributions tied to the athletics program.

Had Georgia won the championship it probably would have gained a bit more, Anderson said. Still, the game gave UGA national attention for hours, just counting the game itself.

“It’s free advertising for your school,” Anderson said.

He analyzed records from 1986 to 2009 (so before the college football playoff system began) and found “robust evidence” that football success increases athletic donations and the number of college applicants, lowers a school’s acceptance rate and increases the average SAT score of incoming classes.

Three for three

Winning an additional three games in a season might lead to a 3 percent increase in admissions applications, while donations to the athletic program could go up 17 percent, he found.

Two other researchers, Devin and Jaren Pope, found that having a successful college basketball or football team increases the number of prospective students who submit their SAT scores to the university.

They concluded that schools that landed in the Final Four of the NCAA basketball tournament or in the top 10 of the final Associated Press poll in football saw the number of submitted SAT scores increase an average of 6 to 8 percent the following year. (And 11 percent for the football team at the top of the rankings.)

Uncertain or small impacts

UGA administrators aren’t predicting big bumps tied to the Bulldogs’ season.

“I don’t think it is going to be significant” as far as number of applications, said Patrick Winter, UGA’s admissions director.

He was at the University of Nebraska in the 1990s when the Cornhuskers were football champions. Applications barely budged, Winter said.

Applications to Georgia already have been rising each year for nearly a decade, Winter said. Applicants often need top credentials to be accepted.

“Those students aren’t necessarily influenced by success in sports,” Winter said.

Financial donations to the university also have been growing in recent years.

Kelly Kerner, who heads UGA’s development and alumni relations efforts, told me the football team’s success will be brought up more in communications with potential donors.

But he said he’s unsure how much of an impact the championship drive will have on giving.

“My gut is it will affect athletic fund-raising more than academic fund-raising,” he said. “When people feel better about a place and there’s a lot of positive momentum, they want to be part of that.”