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Tuesday, June 6, 2023

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Fans cheer on SDSU during their Final Four game against FAU at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, Saturday, April 1, 2023. (SDSU) Fans cheer on SDSU during their Final Four game against FAU at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, Saturday, April 1, 2023. (SDSU)

SDSU's Final Four Success Attracts Interest Beyond Hoops

The university’s name, image and likeness is taking center stage in front of a nationwide audience — and potential future students.
By Aaron Burgin

San Diego State University’s first appearance in the national championship game has brought with it national attention to the university and its nationally recognized academic programs, award-winning faculty and vibrant campus life.


It also could lead to more students putting SDSU on their college lists. 


How much of an uptick, however, is anyone’s guess, said university officials and other experts ahead of Monday’s NCAA Tournament title game pitting the Aztecs men’s basketball team against the UConn Huskies in the officially branded “NCAA March Madness.” 


The phenomenon of a spurt in interest in a school following a watershed sports moment has come to be known as the “Flutie Effect.” It refers to former Boston College quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie, whose Hail Mary touchdown pass to beat Miami in a nationally televised football game in 1984 was followed by a surge in applications to his college. 


SDSU’s national championship appearance has garnered attention from across the sports and pop culture spectrum: A segment on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” had puppies predicting the Aztecs as winners of the tournament. Members of the San Diego Padres - one of Major League Baseball’s most prominent franchises entering the 2023 season — warmed up in SDSU shirts in a show of regional solidarity. 


READ: SDSU's Incredible Win Puts Team in National Title Game


And there have been multiple stories written not just about the basketball team but about the university, its students and its fan base. 


“The championship appearance has electrified the campus,” said J. Luke Wood, SDSU’s vice president of Student Affairs and Campus Diversity, who spent the week in Houston at the Final Four with a large contingent of staff and faculty. 


“We’re seeing incredible interest in our academic community and our programs, and we want all of those prospective students to see SDSU as their future home,” Wood said. “The team’s success has been incredible. As an institution of higher learning, being on this national stage has allowed people to see and understand that whether it is academics, research or athletics, SDSU is among the greatest educational institutions that they can attend. That is a win-win.” 


At SDSU, undergraduate applications have increased from 60,000 in 2011 to nearly 100,000 this year, a time period that coincides with the basketball team’s two Sweet 16 appearances and a decade-long resurgence of the football program. 


Following SDSU's 2011 Sweet 16 run and team star Kawhi Leonard’s rise to an NBA first-round prospect, the university saw applications rise from 60,336 in the fall of 2011 to 70,059 in the fall of 2012 — a 16 percent increase. 


But it’s unclear how much of the increase can be attributed to athletics.


“I've been here over 20 years and have seen some fluctuations with our applicant pools — mostly upward trends year after year, so for a school our size it's really hard to attribute an increase in the numbers due to the success of the teams,” said Matt Hebert, director of Student Recruitment and School Relations in Enrollment Services. 


“March Madness occurs in the spring when students have already applied to colleges and universities. So it's hard to say, for instance, that the first big run back in 2011 directly attributed to an uptick when students were applying six months later to universities,” said Hebert. 


Experts have studied the impact of athletic success on a university’s overall economic well-being, including admissions and donor giving. A 2019 study of the nation’s wealthiest and most powerful collegiate athletic conferences, known as the Power Five, showed that certain measures of football success have a modestly positive and short-lived impact on student applications but no clear impact on admission yield or the quality of the student body. 


The study’s co-author, Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist, said that the study looks at the average situation at a Power 5 school, and it might not necessarily capture a scenario when a school outside of the national power picture, such as San Diego State, makes a deep tournament run. 


“If a school goes from oblivion to suddenly being in the national spotlight, maybe it will have a positive impact; the stats don’t speak to that,” Zimbalist said. 


In basketball, for example, Gonzaga University, a private Jesuit university in Spokane, Washington, saw its undergraduate applications jump from 1,500 in 1999 to more than 4,000 two years after its Elite 8 run that year. 


READ: SDSU Dad Lamont Butler Sr. Reflects on Son’s Journey from Backyard Hoops to NCAA’s Big Stage   


Nate Mannetter, the director of admissions at Gonzaga, said the basketball team’s rise to prominence only explains some of the growth. In addition to interest in the university’s academic programs increasing over time, students overall are applying to more universities - eight in 2011 compared to 12.6 today. 


Manetter also agreed with Hebert that the impact of the tournament appearance probably won’t be felt immediately. Most students by April have already decided where they will attend college in the fall. 


“It might not be a senior who is watching the Final Four but that sophomore or junior who hasn’t made their list might be watching and now they know SDSU or Gonzaga, and they want to know more about the university,” Mannetter said. 


In many cases, the stories told about a university and its basketball program - such as the ones being told about SDSU in the week leading up to the Final Four game - are as powerful as the team’s performance when it comes to piquing the interest of prospective students. 


“It’s hard for someone watching to not think of your university in those terms,” Mannetter said. 


In the end, while an increase in student applicants can’t all be attributed to basketball, being on a national stage can’t hurt, Hebert said. 


“SDSU is rich in many different ways, and applicants choose us for a variety of reasons, and I will say one of those reasons is that we're a school full of life and energy and the excitement of our teams' successes amplifies that. We are a school proud of our achievements, and I think applicants truly see and feel that,” Hebert said. 


Monday championship game

SDSU vs. Connecticut square off Monday at 6:20 p.m.; Watch on CBS TV network or livestream