The University of Arizona could gain hundreds more students if the unbeaten Wildcats hoops team goes all the way this year, history suggests.
In 1997, the last time the UA’s men’s basketball team took the national title, freshman enrollment jumped by more than 800 students — nearly 18 percent — the following year.
But the prestige and positive energy that a winning streak generates only goes so far, research shows.
Beyond a bump in enrollment, universities and the communities surrounding them don’t tend to gain much economically by having a top sports team, experts say.
There’s little spinoff benefit to a local economy. And while alumni giving may increase somewhat, those donations tend to mainly benefit athletics, sometimes at the expense of the academic side of an institution.
“You can’t make the argument that a winning college team is going to make a significant difference” in prosperity, said Robert Baade, a former college coach and national expert on the economic impact of sports.
“The typical result is that it’s benign,” said Baade, a professor of business and economics at Lake Forest College in Illinois, where he coached the men’s basketball team for nearly 20 years.
Much of the research on the impact of college sports has focused on football, which is more popular than hoops at many U.S. schools. But the findings are generally applicable to basketball as well, he said.
In 2008, Baade and fellow researchers looked at 34 years worth of data for 63 major metropolitan areas to see if economic well-being increased when college football teams won.
It didn’t. Even when teams took national titles, there was no “discernable impact on either employment or personal income in the cities where the teams play.”
That’s mainly due to what economists call the substitution effect.
When Tucsonans spend money at McKale Center, those greenbacks aren’t available to spend at malls or movie theaters.
Similarly, when alumni donate more money to athletics “it may come at the expense of money they would have given to the university in general,” Baade said.
A 2012 study found that when NCAA football teams won at least five games more than the previous season, alumni giving to athletics rose 28 percent while overall giving was flat, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research Digest.
On the enrollment front, the UA already is seeing an uptick in freshman applications, said Kasey Urquidez, a vice president and dean of undergraduate admissions.
But it’s hard to know if that’s due to the winning Wildcats or to other efforts being made to increase student interest, she said.
The UA’s future goals call for the school to add about 9,000 on-campus students by 2020. The school had about 40,000 students this year.
If the increased interest continues, “we definitely would welcome it,” Urquidez said.