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Does dropping football lead to academic or athletic success?

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I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the changing financials of this sport, and how different institutions chose to reckon with those changes. Recently, we saw an FCS program, Jacksonville, decide to shut everything down. Two other DII schools in Minnesota followed suit a few days later. The rationale those schools used for dropping football at least makes intellectual sense, but it’s far too early to know if dropping football was truly the right decision.

Recently, the New York Times took a closer look at Northeastern’s decision to drop their football program back in 2009. To hear the school, and the Times, tell it, the decision has paid off in spades. Via the Times:

Since 2009, applications to Northeastern have increased to more than 62,000 annually from 34,000. The average SAT score has risen to 1,457 from 1,288 and research funding has grown to $178.6 million from $63.9 million.

In athletics, the $3.5 million saved annually from eliminating football has been used to beef up recruiting and coaching salaries, primarily in men’s basketball and men’s and women’s ice hockey. The men’s basketball team has twice qualified for the N.C.A.A. tournament since 2015, and both hockey teams have surged, helping to bond the community.

That all sounds pretty good, right? Northeastern football wasn’t very good (they made the FCS playoffs exactly once, and finished 12-28 over their final five seasons) and attendance was terrible. Swapping that for athletic competence in other sports, and improved academic performance elsewhere, seems like a great trade, if that’s actually how things happened.

At Idaho, the last FBS program to drop a level, the story looks decidedly more mixed. Earlier, I caught up with their beat writer, who told a story of a football team struggling to compete at the FCS level. Idaho men’s basketball is still pretty bad, and there’s still plenty of bitterness among fans, alumni, and boosters. It certainly isn’t an apples to apples comparison with Northeastern, but if nothing else, the data right now doesn’t show a smashing success story.

Of course, Northeastern, Jacksonville and Idaho aren’t the only programs that have either dropped a level, or out of football completely. Over the last few decades, several other schools have dropped out of the FBS or FCS level (or 1-A/1-AA). If only there was, oh, some scholarly research to examine what happened with those athletic departments?

Guess what! There is!

I recently came across this paper from Michael Hutchinson and Kimi Jennings of the University of Memphis, and Daniel A. Rascher of the University of San Francisco, published in the Journal of Intercollegiate Sport in 2016, and updated in 2017. The three academics looked at the 21 schools that dropped D1 football between 1981 and 2010, and sought to determine what academic and athletic impact dropping football brought.

Specifically, the study asked:

RQ1: Did the men’s basketball program improve after discontinuing football?

RQ2: Did U.S. News & World Report’s Colleges and Universities ranking improve after discontinuing football?

RQ3: Did SAT scores for incoming freshmen improve after discontinuing football?

RQ4: Did the university increase enrollments after discontinuing football?

The paper found that, at least according to the Sagarin Rankings, men’s basketball performance, on the aggregate, actually slightly declined after football was discontinued. No statistically significant connection was found between US News rankings, SAT scores, or university enrollments, and dropping football.

That may be useful information here for stakeholders mulling a similar decision. From the paper:

Within our context—and among the population of universities having discontinued a Division I football program—the findings indicated that universities can expect little positive or negative impact to academic status and reputation, and a slight negative impact to athletic status. The primary theoretical contribution from this study related to the potential for changing the perception of how de-escalation of commitment is viewed by stakeholders. For instance, within the context of intercollegiate athletics, prior research investigating the process of de-escalation revealed how stakeholders viewed reducing commitment to Division I athletics as not only undesirable, but likely to produce negative consequences to the university and athletic department (see Hutchinson & Bouchet, 2014b). However, at certain universities, our findings revealed de-escalation of commitment—manifest in football program discontinuation—as unlikely to produce substantial positive or negative consequences. Thus, while organizational stakeholders may view de-escalation behavior as unfavorable, theoretically, the tangible impact on the university and athletic department should not necessarily be perceived as negative in nature.

I’m not an academic, and I admit, it’s been several years since I took any statistics classes or devoted large swaths of my time reading these sorts of papers, so my thoughts here are not meant to besmirch the scholarship of this paper. But a few things jumped out at me here.

First, here are the schools in the data set:

University of Texas at ArlingtonSoutheastern Louisiana UniversityWichita State UniversityLamar UniversityCalifornia State University, Long BeachCalifornia State University, FullertonUniversity of the PacificBoston UniversityUniversity of EvansvilleCalifornia State University, NorthridgeCanisius CollegeFairfield UniversitySt. John’s UniversityEast Tennessee State UniversitySiena CollegeSt. Mary’s College of CaliforniaSt. Peter’s UniversityLa Salle UniversityIona CollegeNortheastern UniversityHofstra University

I don’t know if this means anything, but a number of those schools are playing football again. East Tennessee State is playing FCS football in the Southern League, Lamar and SE Louisiana play in the FCS Southland, and there’s been at least noise in recent memory about Wichita State restarting a program.

I’m also not 100% sure all of those schools were competing at the same level of FCS football as some of their peers. This news story, for example, suggests Saint Mary’s was only funding 16 full ride scholarships when they dropped their football program. Other 1-AA schools were funding over 60. That’s much closer to fielding a DII team, even if they were officially competing at the DI level. Siena wasn’t offering scholarships at all. Neither was Fairfield.

Another thing that stands out is that’s still a pretty small data set. There are a lot of *very different* kinds of schools on this list too, from selective private schools, to larger public schools, tiny Jesuit schools, and more. Each of those schools have different missions, stakeholders, endowments, financial situations, and definitions of success. I think that’s going to make measuring outcomes pretty tricky, no matter what specific research questions you want to ask.

Are all of those schools, for example, actually trying to increase enrollment, or selectivity? And while I don’t question the utility of including US News rankings, since we have research to suggest that both incoming students and college administrators value that data, it’s worth pointing out that quite a bit goes into those rankings that have nothing to do with an athletic department. Among other variables, US News includes data like facility resources (salaries, proportion of faculty who are full time, etc), alumni giving, and per-student spending in determining rankings, among other metrics that would be difficult to tie into athletic spending (or cuts). Even if cutting football lead to a dramatically more (or less) academically accomplished freshman class, a school’s US News ranking might not budge much. Heck, US News doesn’t even rank all of these institutions.

I’m not sure what variables or other research questions I’d recommend instead. Finding data that goes back to the early 1980s for most of those institutions would be pretty difficult! I appreciate that scholars have at least tried to quantify some of this stuff, as imperfect as it might be.

Here’s my TL;DR: Cutting football alone won’t solve your problems

Dropping football might save you some money. It might free you from the need to make costly infrastructure investments, like stadiums or training facilities. But what you do with that money is up to you, and just like anything else in university administration, nothing is guaranteed.

If your school is a tough place to win basketball games, chances are, dropping football isn’t going to make it a much easier place to win basketball games. You might end up with a little more money to throw at your program, but if you don’t make a good coaching hire, don’t develop a winning culture, don’t develop players well, etc…you’ll still stink. Many of the schools on that list have problems that an extra million bucks in the department budget isn’t going to fix. And if you’re a university president who is hoping that dropping football alone will help elevate your other athletic programs, you may be out of luck.

It also won’t ruin or save your university. If your school wants to market themselves to a more academically accomplished student, that’s going to involve a holistic strategic plan that extends beyond just the athletic department. It would appear it’s worked out at Northeastern, but if it did, it certainly wasn’t just because of football.

I have two follow up questions for future research

Maybe these have already been answered. But if not, I’d wonder,

1) What are the effects, both academically and athletically, on schools that start D1 football programs? Do they see boosts in enrollment or average SAT scores? Do those boosts only happen if they win? Are the boosts more pronounced at the FBS level, compared to FCS? Is there an impact on men’s basketball, or the athletic department’s overall performance? Or are the results statistically insignificant?

2) What is the impact on the diversity of the undergraduate population after dropping football? It’s not uncommon, after all, for a D1 football roster to be more diverse (racially, economically, and in other ways) than the rest of the undergraduate student population, and eliminating roster spots or scholarships could make a school less diverse, at least on paper. Do schools dropping football try to offset this decline via recruiting or development in other places?

Should your school drop or add football? Well,,,,,it depends

I don’t think this paper answers that conclusively, nor could it. Different schools differ dramatically and what a school should do with their football program depends on so many factors that include geography, institutional mission, finances, conference affiliation, and more.

It’s useful to have some data to reset expectations for a booster, provost, board member or other interested party. The decision alone probably won’t bring salvation or destruction. Whether you’ll be successful, however you choose to define that, will probably depend on what everybody else does next.

Is the goal to improve athletic success elsewhere? Then you better hire great coaches, support staffers and administrators. Is the goal to improve enrollment? Sports might help, but that’s also the purview of a university strategic plan, marketing department, and other stakeholders. If you’re trying to improve the SAT score of incoming freshman, what is your argument in the marketplace for talented students? If you want to succeed anywhere, you need a plan.

If there’s been a theme over the last several newsletters…it’s probably been that I think schools should continue to ask themselves exactly how they plan to define that success. It is not always an easy question.

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