The Flutie Effect: How UMBC Can Benefit From a Historic NCAA Tournament Upset

After completing the greatest upset in NCAA Tournament lure, how can the Retrievers truly capitalize on reaching the national stage?
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The stunning upset by No. 16 ranked University of Maryland, Baltimore County—better known to the world on Saturday as UMBC—of No. 1-seed Virginia in the NCAA tournament on Friday night could have reverberations that extend far beyond the tournament and the millions of fans whose brackets are now toast. Through merely one basketball game, UMBC is poised obtain massive financial benefits in terms of increased student applications, enhanced giving by alumni and improved apparel and merchandise sales.

Historically, the institutional benefit to a college when one of its sports teams wins an upset in a high-profile game has been labeled “The Flutie Effect.” It is named after former Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie, who in 1984 threw a Hail Mary pass to wide receiver Gerard Phelan as time expired to lift the Eagles to a 47–45 upset of defending national champion Miami on national TV, with famed broadcaster Brent Musburger calling the game at the Orange Bowl.

Suddenly, a prestigious Catholic college became far better known among people outside New England. Put bluntly, BC became a lot more cool.

In the aftermath, applications to Boston College increased by about 30% for two years. Alumni engagement and apparel sales also improved. While there are obviously many non-sports reasons for Boston College’s success over the years, the school is now ranked by U.S. News and World Report as the 32nd-best national university in the United States.

The Flutie Effect could alternatively be called The Ewing Effect (as opposed to The Ewing Theory). Between 1983 and ’86, applications to Georgetown University increased by 45%. The dominance of the men’s basketball team during this time period is regarded as a key factor. Patrick Ewing leading the Hoyas to a national title in 1984 highlighted what is known as the golden age of Hoya hoops. The institutional benefits would last for decades: Georgetown has become extremely selective in admissions and is now rankedby U.S. World and Report as the 20th-best national university in the U.S. There are, of course, many other factors for Georgetown becoming as selective as an Ivy League school. Still, the popularity of the Hoyas gave the institution new attention and a powerful recruiting tool with high school students.

There are still other examples of the Flutie Effect. Undergraduate applications at Butler University rose by 43% following the men’s basketball team unexpectedly advancing to the national championship game against Duke in 2010. Other Cinderella teams, like Gonzaga and VCU, experienced similar phenomena in the aftermath of their unexpected runs. Similar observations have been made of Texas A&M while quarterback Johnny Manziel played there—notwithstanding his later troubles, Manziel brought the Aggies a kind of popularity and national attention that not even the most brilliant marketing campaign or clever consultant would have devised.

The Flutie Effect has also been studied and validated from an academic standpoint. In 2013, Harvard Business School professor Doug J. Chung authored a paper titled “The Dynamic Advertising Effect of Collegiate Athletics.” It examined the empirical impact of athletic success on the quantity and quality of applications received by a college. Chung found there is a meaningful impact, and he reached the following conclusions:

• When a school goes from being mediocre to being great on the football field, applications increase by 18.7%.

• To attain similar effects, a school has to either decrease its tuition by 3.8% or increase the quality of its education by recruiting higher-quality faculty who are paid 5% more in the academic labor market.

• Schools become more selective with athletic success. For a mid-level school, in terms of average SAT scores, the admissions rate improves by 5.1% with high-level athletic success.

• Students with low ability value the historical success of intercollegiate athletics over longer periods of time.

• Surprisingly, students with high SAT scores are also significantly affected by athletic success.

The takeaway is that athletic success can lead to more applications at a college—be it for enrollment at a college’s residential campus or, especially now, in an online program. This is important for a number of reasons, including that increased applications usually translate into more revenue and usually allow a college’s admissions team to apply more selective measures in accepting applications. As a result, previously regional or even obscure schools can gain a national footprint that might have been impossible to obtain otherwise. This, in turn, can help the school attract top faculty and administrators, which could make the school even more selective. Likewise, athletic success can improve alumni engagement, which often leads to more alumni giving.

This is exactly the kind of cycle a college wants to enter.

There is, of course, a separate and important question stemming this discussion: Shouldn’t the players, who are subject to NCAA amateurism rules, benefit more from the lasting value that they provide their institutions? To many, the answer to that question is a resounding “yes.” And in my new book with Ed O’Bannon, this topic is carefully examined.

But for this piece, the takeaway question is whether the Flutie Effect might one day be renamed the UMBC Effect. Only time will tell the answer. However, the fact that UMBC’s website crashed last night due to unexpected interest in the school suggests the answer might be prove to be “yes.”

Michael McCann, is SI's legal analyst. He is also the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.