TCU may or may not win a national championship in football this year, but another top 10 ranking means the Horned Frogs scored big anyway.
The Frogs are spending their ninth week in the AP Top 25 as they prepare for the Big 12 title game on Saturday. Their game against Oklahoma kicks off the sport’s “championship weekend” with all eyes watching in anticipation of what teams will make the College Football Playoff. And TCU, ranked 10th by the AP, is one of only two major college teams from Texas — and the only Texas team from the Big 12 — in action on a heavily watched day.
The resulting exposure is “priceless,” athletic director Chris Del Conte said.
“I don’t even think you can quantify it,” he said. “It’s tremendous. It’s priceless. It’s immeasurable.”
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Sports economists agree.
“It’s millions. We know it’s millions,” said Raymond Sauer, a professor in the John E. Walker Department of Economics at Clemson, who founded The Sports Economist blog. “People have studied those things, and the numbers are very, very big.”
The benefits mean more than money, however.
Before TCU’s Rose Bowl championship season in 2010, the school was receiving 6,000 applicants for about 1,600 spots, Del Conte said.
“Now we’re well over 23,000 for 1,600 spots,” he said. “There are so many people now talking about TCU. There is a direct correlation between the success of our football program on the national stage and a variety of areas. One is applicants. Two is the amount of people wanting to give back. I tell everyone, a rising tide floats all boats.”
Additionally, California makes up the second-largest percentage of students at TCU after Texas, in large part because of the Rose Bowl championship, Del Conte has said. And it is one reason TCU has scheduled football games in the Golden State in 2020 at Cal and 2024 at Stanford.
“It is absolutely a driver for general university awareness, general university brand equity and enrollment of undergraduate students,” said Whitney Wagoner, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.
She said something similar happened at her school when the Ducks program rose to prominence in 2008, the first of a seven-year string of Top 10 appearances in the AP Top 25, including a national championship game appearance following the 2010 season.
“The overall size of enrollment at this institution and the diversity and geographic reach of where students are coming from can be tied to Oregon football,” she said. “No doubt, overall, a university attracts a broader and more diverse student body as a whole when the athletic programs are performing at a high level.”
Even Clemson, a school with a richer tradition in football, experienced the effect following its national championship last year.
“Right after that, you could see a huge spike in visits to the webpage and interest in completing an application and ultimately in submitting the application,” Sauer said. “Every kid in high school in South Carolina knows who the Clemson Tigers are. But not every kid in Texas. So when you’re in the playoff and go to the national championship game and you win, kids in Texas take note of that. It’s spreading your name out further.”
TCU coach Gary Patterson and his staff are missing recruiting time because of this week’s championship game, but he’ll take the trade.
“I think this is the best recruiting tool you can have, because you’re playing for a championship,” he said. “I don’t know why you would want anything different.”
Top 10 seasons also provide an opportune time to ask for money.
When TCU finished No. 7 in the AP Top 25 in 2008, it was the school’s first top-10 finish since 1959. Another Top-10 finish followed in 2009, complete with an appearance in the Fiesta Bowl, the school’s first major bowl bid since the Cotton Bowl in 1958.
In August 2010, the school announced it had raised $105 million to rebuild Amon G. Carter Stadium. In 2012, the new stadium opened in time for TCU’s entry into the Big 12.
“People are more apt to take the phone call,” Del Conte said of his school’s donors, who have since helped TCU fund a $70 million renovation of Schollmaier Arena, $7.5 million in improvements to the baseball stadium and similar projects for women’s volleyball and soccer. “Whether or not they’re ready to make a gift, they’re more apt to take the phone call.”
Two weeks ago, TCU announced a plan to raise $100 million for a club and suites on the east side of the football stadium. Last week, Patterson signed a six-year contract in part to assure recruits and donors of his staying power. The university’s most recent tax filing showed Patterson, the school’s winningest coach all time, had cracked $5 million per year in compensation.
“When you have a phenomenal coach and facilities, you’re able to recruit the very best student-athletes,” Del Conte said. “If you’re a science school and you want to hire the very best scientists, you can’t have 1950s Bunsen burners. But if you give them the very best equipment and you have the very best scientists, you’re going to attract the very best students. That’s what’s happening now.”
This season’s Top 10 ranking also helped inspired a visit from ESPN’s College GameDay, the popular pregame show broadcast on location from a college campus hosting typically that weekend’s biggest game.
ESPN broadcast from The Commons at TCU ahead of the Horned Frogs’ game Oct. 7 against West Virginia, a matchup of No. 8 vs. No. 23 in the AP rankings.
“College GameDay is to this generation what Monday Night Football was to ours, or mine at least,” said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. “It featured the city, it was a celebration of everything that was going on in the community. You lobbied for it. You wanted that backdrop of the city lights. That was among the very beginnings of location-based sports entertainment, and now GameDay is this perfect blend of sports and entertainment on location.”
Carter said GameDay succeeds because it has a rare ability to appeal to college students and their parents, alumni and donors, and community or city leaders.
“Because of that, when it comes to your town, it is a big deal because it gives not just the university a chance to shine, but also businesses, the politicians, the celebrity pickers,” he said. “It’s a place people want to see and be seen. GameDay, to me, is one of the most exceptional pieces of sports programming out there, so when it comes to your school, it’s a very important development.”
In essence, it is a free commercial that schools covet.
“It’s a real common practice to do something that we call ‘media equivalency,’ where you estimate how many seconds or minutes of the brand exposure, how many times the university was mentioned, how many times the logo was shown, and you can get to a dollar value of how much it would have cost you to buy that in advertising,” Wagoner said. “If you were going to buy that time on ESPN, it would cost you millions and millions.”
In concrete numbers, how much money does a Top 10 ranking really mean for a school?
There is disagreement there.
“There’s no doubt it exists. The only question is how do we do the math,” Wagoner said. “People have different calculations and algorithms that they use. Some of it is indirect. You can’t necessarily say that A is tied to B. But we all know that all of it is positive and drives value.”
Short-term benefits are relatively small, Wagoner said, because season tickets, seat options, club contracts and television and marketing deals are often long-term. Revenue spikes are easier to detect via donations and licensed merchandise sales, she said.
In fact, memorabilia merchants ought to be as much a fan of a Top 10 ranking as anyone.
“They benefit more because they keep a larger percentage of the transaction, by far, than the university,” Wagoner said.
For many major universities, it is worth the investment to try for a Top 10 football program. But it is a risky game.
Power 5 teams such as Texas A&M, Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee, Nebraska, UCLA and Oregon State and others have fired their coaches this season, resulting in millions in contract buyouts. Arizona State owes Todd Graham more than $12 million, and Texas A&M will continue to pay Kevin Sumlin more than $10 million. To lure its prospective new coach, Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M reportedly is offering a rare 10-year contract.
At powerhouse Alabama, Nick Saban is being paid more than $11 million a year to keep the Crimson Tide at the top of college football.
“One of the reasons we have intercollegiate sports is that schools value the exposure that they get,” Sauer said. “But not everybody can succeed. Every game has a winner and a loser. The competition to be the winner and not the loser is very fierce. When you get a good coach like Gary Patterson and a solid program that keeps winning, you’re doing some things right. It’s not easy to stay on top, but it’s very valuable to be there.”
Big 12 championship
TCU vs. Oklahoma
11:30 a.m. Saturday, KDFW/Ch. 4