Now that the Final Four is a little more than a fortnight in the past, it is the appropriate time to reflect. No, not on the fact that you finished last in your office pool because you picked Oral Roberts to make it to the second weekend and Duke to still be playing come April (what were you thinking?). It’s time to look at the theoretical phenomenon known as the "Flutie Effect," which claims a college can improve incoming freshmen quality from success in sports. Are high-profile college sports teams’ performance linked to the level of interest among prospective students?
Tracked here is the visitation to approximately 125 universities’ admissions pages. The percent change from February to March of a given year was observed. The colleges that were followed were all in the NCAA Tournament at least once from 2005-2008. Each bar represents the average percent change for each school who advanced to at least that round in each respective tournament. For example, the "Made Sweet 16" bar in 2007 refers to the mean average of the sixteen teams who advanced that far that year. Here are some significant findings:
- George Mason’s historic run to the Final Four as an 11-seed made them the no-brainer candidate to benefit from the "Flutie effect." From February to March 2006, the traffic to George Mason’s admission page jumped a modest 38%.
- Considering how incredible their tournament run was, one might expect a bigger surge, particularly when comparing to other schools who advanced to at least the Sweet 16. For example, five teams who either lost in the Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight (Duke: 65%, Wichita State: 89%, Washington: 45%, Memphis: 133%, and Villanova: 55%) had a better percentage increase than George Mason. Out of those five, however, only Duke saw a larger total increase in absolute admissions visitor traffic. George Mason’s higher total admissions traffic in February may help explain their lower relative increase (Wichita State and Memphis both had less than a third the total admissions traffic in February), but considering the magnitude of GMU’s run, it was still surprising that they didn’t compare better against those five schools.
- The biggest surprise of the 2006 data was the increase seen by UCLA, who reached the championship game and saw a 140% spike. Unlike Memphis, who jumped 133%, UCLA had a relatively high admissions page traffic in February.
- This year’s tournament saw significantly lower increases across each level of advancement. This could be due to the fact that the 2007 NCAA Tournament had an unusually low amount of upsets (only 4 teams defeated an opponent who was seeded 2 or more seeds higher than they were).
- For the second straight tournament, UCLA made it to the Final Four and saw a 69% surge in March. Florida, who repeated as national champion, only saw a 13% increase.
- The major Cinderella this year was the tenth-seeded Davidson, who lost to eventual champion Kansas in the Elite Eight. The popular underdog saw an enormous surge in admissions page traffic of well over 200% in March. It’s important to keep in mind that Davidson’s February traffic was quite small, but the jump it saw in March is still impressive. Davidson’s spike is why the average Elite Eight team’s increase was greater than the average Final Four team’s.
- For the third straight tournament, UCLA reached the Final Four. This year they only increased by 45%, however, its February traffic in 2008 was higher than 2006 and 2007. UCLA’s increase was second to UNC’s 75% among the teams that reached the Final Four.
There definitely appears to be a strong correlation between advancing in the NCAA Tournament and increased traffic to that school’s admissions page. One caveat I would add is that the "Flutie effect" doesn’t necessarily have to occur when a low-profile school emerges. Teams like UNC or UCLA, who have won many national championships in the past, are likely to see their admissions traffic jump considerably. When a school like Davidson this year or Memphis in 2006 comes along, it is simply a more pronounced jump due to the lower traffic levels prior to their success.