- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2004

Eastern Washington University is about as far from the mainstream of college sports as a school can get.

But the nation is about to get a formal introduction to the small university located near the Idaho line in Cheney, Wash.: On Friday, the Eagles make their first appearance in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

It’s an opportunity not lost on university administrators. President Stephen Jordan and several dozen staffers will travel to Kansas City for the Eagles’ first-round game against Oklahoma State, and they’re hoping for more than just victory.

They see this tournament appearance as a means to boost donations and admissions applications to the school.

Admissions and alumni offices often are the greatest beneficiaries of unexpected athletic success, thanks in part to the revenue-sharing systems of athletic conferences that are designed to produce long-term stability and to merchandise with a limited shelf life.

Many Cinderella schools — Gonzaga, Valparaiso and the College of Charleston, for example — report a surge in applicants after a splashy success in the tournament. However, they also benefit from less-obvious payoffs: higher test scores for incoming freshmen, better grade-point averages, more geographic diversity and an increased breadth and depth of alumni giving.

Those windfalls are critical as schools from coast to coast face tightened budgets and reduced government assistance.

“This is a very, very big deal for us. The rest of the world is going to get a sense of what we do,” said Michelle Whittingham, Eastern Washington admissions director. “We feel like we have a lot to offer, but the first, big hurdle is to get people to find us. This is a major step in that direction.”

The sports-admissions link is known widely in collegiate circles as the “Flutie Effect,” named for Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie. Flutie led the Eagles to a miracle comeback win over the University of Miami in 1984 on national television, and Boston College reported a 30 percent increase in undergraduate applications over the next two years.

Since then, however, the concept has met with skepticism from researchers. Many leaders at Boston College credit the mid-1980s surge in interest not only to Flutie and his Heisman Trophy win, but to expansions of available student housing, academic programs and outreach to alumni. Several other studies and polls conducted in recent years argue the vast majority of prospective college students do not care about athletic achievement or factor it into their decision making.

But to many schools living March Madness first hand, the Flutie Effect is alive and flourishing.

Gonzaga, located near Eastern Washington in Spokane, burst on the national basketball scene five years ago, when it improbably reached the Elite Eight round. That run has been backed up by five more trips to the tournament and four West Coast Conference titles.

And since 1999, undergraduate applications and alumni donations to Gonzaga more than doubled. Enrollment ballooned beyond the limits of available housing, and students began arriving from distant states like Connecticut and Florida. The average SAT score has risen 30 points.

Hence, Eastern Washington is consulting Gonzaga on how to capitalize fully on its tournament appearance.

“The entire university loves the positive press associated with the basketball program. The press can certainly be associated with an increase in inquiries from around the country,” said Julie McCulloh, Gonzaga director of admissions. “However, it makes the recruitment process more challenging in some senses. It used to be easy to determine who were the serious prospective students most likely to apply. With the explosion in inquiries, it has become harder.”

A significant part of the allure of the NCAA tournament to prospective students is its ability to get far beyond stuffy, predictable brochures and promotional videos into something pulsating with passion and spectacle. This is particularly true for smaller, private schools that do not have the large, reliable base of potential students and financial support of many large state universities.

The key, many university administrators say, is to take the NCAA tournament in its proper context. No student, and certainly no parent spending six figures for four years of college, is going to base his or her decision solely on how the basketball or football team performs. But no admissions or alumni officer will deny high-profile sports success is rarely, if ever, challenged in terms of national marketing reach and power.

Joyce Julius & Associates, a Michigan based sponsorship evaluation firm, estimates the exposure a school receives during a regionally broadcast first-round game in the NCAA tournament is worth about $100,000 to $200,000. If the game is broadcast nationally, the figure goes as high as $500,000.

“It’s really some of the greatest publicity a college can have,” said Christopher Gruber, director of admissions for the University of Richmond.

The school boosted its applicant pool by 8 percent after the Spiders’ 1998 tournament appearance and projects a smaller increase after its return trip this year.

“We’ll be playing it up, and it comes at an important time,” Gruber said. “But it’s not like we’ll be out someplace like Philadelphia or Milwaukee talking about it. It’s a bonus tool for us.”

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