Are the San Diego National Football League (NFL) Chargers causing the San Diego State University Aztecs football team to lose games and fans? If so, which is worse for San Diego, losing its NFL franchise to another city, or sub-optimal performance and attendance at Aztecs football games?
While these question at first appear both absurd and provocative, there have been several studies that can answer these questions – at least to some degree. Moreover, the studies go further. The studies indicate that the success of a college sports team has an effect on the regional economy.
First, winning by a university’s sports teams increases both the number and the quality of its student applications.1 It hardly needs be said that the number and quality of student applications facilitates everything from funding to prestige, and ultimately the growth of a university. This explains in large part why university administrations continue to fund even money-losing or scandal-ridden high profile sports like football and basketball.
Second, universities are major local and regional economic anchors. They create high paying jobs, support local businesses, and act as incubators of new businesses – especially in high tech and bio-med sectors.2 In contrast, NFL teams have minimal impact on local economies.3
Therefore, successful sports programs have a positive impact on local economies in a way that professional sports teams cannot replicate. So how do universities attain winning teams? Of course, that is a highly sought-after formula. Good coaching, good recruitment of athletes, and good facilities are obviously helpful. So what about attendance and community support – does it help?
Third, winning improves attendance, but increased attendance does not cause teams to win . . . in the short run.4 However, improved attendance over the long run creates more support for college sports programs, and increases expectations and pressure to field winning teams.5
So universities are good for local economies, winning is good for the growth of universities, and attendance and local support is good for winning. So what does that have to do with NFL teams, you ask?
The fourth and final finding in this analysis is that pro teams compete with college teams for attendance.6 Especially so if the college teams are not winning or if the teams are in large cities.7 This is particularly evident at Aztecs football games where average attendance is in the low to mid-twenty thousands – similar to the University of Montana, a much smaller university in a city 1/20th the size of San Diego with a football team that competes in a lower division than the SDSU Aztecs but with no professional football team competing with it for support. While the Aztecs football team has maintained an overall winning record in the last few years, even been invited to post-season bowl games – albeit, not Bowl Championship Series (BCS) games – they’ve hardly generated the excitement or support of other universities their size in cities without NFL teams, or in comparison to the Aztecs basketball team, which doesn’t have to compete for fans with a National Basketball Association (NBA) team.
Even on a hyper-local level, college football teams support a greater infrastructure than NFL teams, including marching bands, cheerleaders, and tradition that just doesn’t exist with NFL teams. While some point to higher athletic talent as a reason for prefering NFL games, others prefer college games for the culture, tradition, lower ticket prices, and reduced emphasis on money of college games. Is it entirely a coincidence that Ohio State University, located in Columbus – a city without an NFL franchise – field the Buckeyes football team: the college national football champions? Incidentally, the economy of Columbus is growing faster than Cleveland and Cincinnati, larger cities with NFL teams.8
The main criticisms against building a new stadium to keep the chargers are compelling but looking at some of the collateral impacts of a pro team, it starts to beg the question why would any city want a pro sports franchise? Evidence shows that pro teams rob college teams of attendance and support, and that this has a real, if indirect, negative pressure on local economies. Of course, none of this means that an NFL franchise dooms local university teams to football failure, or that the absence of one guarantees success. There are many obstacles to football success, and many causes of failure. However, evidence indicates that the presence of an NFL team is an obstacle to university football success – maybe one of several but an obstacle nevertheless.
In any case, and maybe more important to die hard sports fans who are willing to have public funds subsidize their passion, university teams are not likely to leave your city for cities that offer them a bigger-better deal. Loyalty, intelligence, and a good paying job is a recipe for a fruitful personal relationship. Why not between a city and its sports teams?
Image by Author of his own Ladanian Tomlinson Chargers jersey and an SDSU Aztecs sweatshirt sold at Costco.
2. See Andrew Hahn, et al., Colleges and Universities as Economic Anchors – Profiles of Promising Practices, Brandeis University (2003). See also, Economic Impacts of AAU Universities, Association of American Universities.