The struggle between academics and athletics is a higher education cliche. But in every cliche, there’s a bit of truth.
As the University of Utah football team appeared for the second year in a row at the country’s oldest bowl game, many members of the campus community snatched up Rose Bowl T-shirts at the Campus Store and made road trips to Pasadena. For others, the feeling was more, “Meh.”
Whichever camp you’re in, there’s no doubt the New Year’s bowl berth in the “Granddaddy of Them All” has an impact far beyond the academic mission of the U—from student recruitment to marketing and branding to donor and alumni engagement to campus store sales.
“Bowl game participation provides the U a unique opportunity for national media exposure,” said Taylor Randall, University of Utah president. “Nearly 17 million people watched the Rose Bowl last year. Not only did the game showcase the caliber of our athletics department, but it also highlighted the quality of our students and fans. This builds social capital for the U across the country and provides others a glimpse of the exceptional student experience we offer.”
The 2023 Rose Bowl is the fourth time Utah made an appearance in a New Year’s Six (NY6) game—the NCAA’s Division 1 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) bowl games. In addition to playing in the Rose Bowl in 2022, the team competed in the 2009 Sugar Bowl and the 2005 Fiesta Bowl. While selection for these major games is a clear indicator of athletic excellence and provides exciting opportunities for students and fans, the Rose Bowl’s impact extends beyond the U’s athletic department.
“Major events that showcase the U are always positives in terms of exposure to potential students,” said Steve Robinson, senior associate vice president for enrollment management.
According to U Chief Experience Officer Andrea Thomas, athletics can serve as a “front porch” for top-tier research institutions like the U. While many research universities educate thousands of students, produce ground-breaking research and provide world-class health care, not all have high-performing athletics teams. The University of Utah is somewhat unique in that respect. Thomas said the academic and athletics missions can be complementary.
“The excitement and community that athletics foster is unique and expands the university’s impact in distinct ways,” she added.
Ticket sales for the Rose Bowl reached over 30,000 in back-to-back years, indicating a strong show of support and shared excitement from the students, alumni and fan base.
Winning football games—and qualifying for bowl games—enhances a school’s academic reputation, increases applicants and in-state students, and increases alumni academic donations, according to a 2016 report. At the U it seems to be significantly increasing Campus Store sales as well. In December 2022, the Campus Store experienced about a 16% increase in online Red Zone merchandise orders in comparison to last year.
Because alumni are such an important part of the university’s football fan base, events like the Rose Bowl create a special opportunity to reconnect with graduates and build relationships with new donors, said Heidi Woodbury, the U’s vice president for institutional advancement.
“The Rose Bowl has helped us re-engage alumni we haven’t seen for years,” Woodbury said. “We’re also hearing from new donors who want to be part of what’s happening at the university.”
According to Mark Harlan, the U’s athletic director, “The momentum and success of our football team are reflective of the exceptional achievements of all of our athletes.”
For example, Utah women’s basketball team is undefeated and ranked 12th in the nation. The Utah Gymnastics team ranked first preseason in the Pac-12. And for five years in a row, Harlan added, the U’s student-athlete graduation success rate has been 93% or better, second only to Stanford in the Pac-12.