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Do Facilities Really Matter In Recruiting?

By Matt R. Huml, N David Pifer, Caitlin Towle, Cheryl Rode

This article is a summary of findings from the following article: Huml, M. R., Pifer, N. D., Towle, C., & Rode, C. R. (In press). If we build it, will they come? The effect of new athletic facilities on recruiting rankings for power five football and men’s basketball programs. Journal of Marketing in Higher Education. doi: 10.1090/08841241.2018.1478924.


We are in the midst of a nation-wide building boom in higher education. Colleges and universities across the United States have spent roughly $11 billion or more on new facilities in each year since 2010. This is likely only going to increase, with some states, like New York, pledging to spend billions of dollars on new campus facilities over the next five years. While these facilities are diversified across campuses, the biggest and most expensive facilities are typically athletic buildings. Because of their high costs, it is becoming necessary for athletic departments to show a return on investment.


When athletic departments plan or open new facilities, they often speak of these facilities as being necessary for “keeping up with the times” or “keeping up with the competition” as they attempt to erect facilities similar to their conference brethren. But what does this mean? And how can a new athletic facility be measured for success?


For us, it was important to see if these new athletic facilities were making the supposed impact given their costs, and if certain facilities were more substantive to team success. The first challenge was deciding how to measure success, which led us to examine statements made by athletic department decision-makers when building these new facilities. Some coaches or athletic administrators’ statements provided a peek into what they were hoping to accomplish with their new athletic facilities. We saw statements about how new facilities were going to provide student-athletes with new technology or training capabilities that were not available in the old building (see here), how a bigger facility would offer more equipment and/or offices for new staff that weren’t previously available (see here), and how larger buildings could help expand revenue opportunities through increases in paying customers and/or donors (see here).


However, while each of these statements were potentially well-reasoned, they were difficult for us to measure due to them being measured and evaluated internally. We instead needed to find a frequently-mentioned measurement that involved public data. What became apparent to us was how often athletic departments were mentioning the impact of new athletic facilities on recruiting success (see here, here, and here).


With many of these projects revolving around improving the student-athlete experience, either through lavish locker rooms, improved academic settings, or access to new recreational outlets (i.e., bowling or mini-golf), it seemed intuitive that these new facilities could leave favorable impressions on incoming recruits. Part of these assumptions have been previously studied, as scholars have investigated the decision-making process of prospective student-athletes.


Athletes have mentioned the importance of the coaching staff, the university’s academic offerings, and surrounding environment (such as urban or rural campus) as important factors when choosing a school. Student-athletes also place a similar importance on facilities as non-athlete college students; this doesn’t provide much distinction on whether facilities can sway student-athletes, but may hint at its overemphasis in the recruitment process. That said, no one has actually measured whether these new athletic facilities were actually making a difference in recruiting.


If a school builds a new athletic facility, does its recruiting improve after the facility is constructed? Does it see an improvement after the new facility is under construction? For us, these were important questions considering (1) how optimistic many athletic department stakeholders are about how facilities will be a difference maker in recruiting circles and (2) how expensive these facilities can be. It’s easy to say that prominent donors are footing a large portion of the bill (true in many cases, false in many others as athletic departments can also pursue bonds to pay for the project in the long-term). In the best-case scenario, it commits precious donor dollars to certain projects that may not make an actual difference on the recruiting trail, while leaving other projects unfunded.


Study Parameters


Completing a study on the impact of athletic facilities on recruiting is a tricky one. First, we had to find the best way to measure recruiting success. Coaches often speak to valuing certain recruits higher than others. The internal valuing system for coaches was going to be impossible for us to possess. However, there are national recruiting databases designed to inform the general public on the quality of a team’s incoming recruits. While some have complained about their accuracy, studies have shown that recruiting rankings are fairly accurate predictors of both college-level and professional success. Since this data is public, we used the composite team recruiting rankings from 247sports.com, which aggregates rankings from multiple websites, such as Rivals or ESPN.


Because these recruiting rankings are only comprehensive back to 2002 (football) or 2003 (men’s basketball), we had to limit the breadth of our study to this timeline. We wanted to expand to many other sports, but recruiting rankings outside of football and men’s basketball are not as established or as vetted for accuracy, and many of them require a subscription for access. The next challenge was assessing facility construction.


For many schools, an announcement would be posted when a facility was completed. These announcements didn’t always include the cost, the date the project was initially introduced, or the fundraising cycle that was used to pay for the building. We did our best to establish an opening date and find additional materials for when the project was announced publicly for the first time. These details were important to us because this information was likely being used in promotional recruiting materials that could have been showcasing the facility ahead of its final completion date. This promotional arc led us to measure the two years before and after a facility was opened, as we believed the in-between would be the potential peak of recruiting improvement based on facility construction.


Overall, we were successful in finding these materials on all Power Five football and basketball programs, even for private institutions. In the end, we were able to collect facilities data on 43 teams and 593 seasonal observations for men’s basketball, and 54 teams and 805 seasonal observations for football. For these observations, we categorized new athletic facilities as either direct impact facilities that were clearly related to player performance (e.g., practice fields and weight rooms), or indirect impact facilities that weren’t directly related to team and player performance (e.g., dormitories and academic centers). We created these categories to see if there was a difference in recruiting based on the school building a direct or indirect facility.


We also had to control for other factors that happen frequently in college sports, such as coaches being hired/fired, the school going into a new conference, and fluctuating winning percentages. For example, a school may have the unfortunate timing of opening a new athletic facility immediately after the program has a winless season and fires their coach, which would negatively impact their recruiting. As you can see from this example, these controls can help us look at new facilities and their effects on recruiting in a vacuum, without the influence of other factors.


What We Found


While a large number of athletic programs have been building or completing facilities projects, our study found little to no impact from new athletic facilities on the recruitment of potential football or men’s basketball recruits. The direct impact football projects represented the largest amount of facility projects during the time period of the study, yet their returns in recruiting were mostly non-significant. There were no recruiting improvements for direct football projects during the year before facility completion, nor the first and second year after the facility was completed. Only in the year right before a project was completed was there a marginally significant effect which showed that team recruiting rankings slightly improved before a facility project was completed.


Indirect football projects were also unlikely to improve recruiting, outside of a small, 0.9% improvement in a class’s rating in the season that followed a project’s completion. While not a focus of our study, other independent variables did create significant differences as it pertains to team recruiting rankings. For example, the team’s conference winning percentage in the previous year and the two seasons that followed a coaching change were found to be significant. A couple of the authors on this project are in the midst of another study examining the phenomenon of second-year head coaches significantly improving their programs.


On the other hand, men’s basketball had slightly different results in terms of the direct facilities’ impacts on recruiting. Two years before the completion of a direct project, recruiting rankings were significantly worse than they were in the year before the facility was completed. Indeed, the year before completion saw basketball teams’ recruiting efforts improve significantly. One potential explanation for these findings is that schools may be initiating these projects following a down year or in conjunction with wide-scale improvements to the program. Similar to football, no recruiting improvements were reported for indirect projects, both before and after a project was completed. Looking at our controls, only a new coaching change was found to be significant, with team recruiting rankings getting significantly worse in a new men’s basketball coach’s first year.


What Does This Mean?


Our findings provide strong evidence that new athletic facilities for football and men’s basketball do not improve recruiting rankings. Disregarding the revenue implications of the investigated projects (such as new stadiums or renovations/expansions), these findings do raise interesting questions about the value of new athletic facilities. With coaches and administrators frequently saying how new facilities are going to improve their recruiting, this study questions whether these facilities are the best way to spend additional time and money.


Another explanation is that new football and basketball facilities could have little to no effect on recruiting rankings because a large number of schools have made upgrades in the past 10-15 years. Prospective student-athletes would have many upgraded or new facilities to select from, meaning these new facilities would no longer stand out. This situation personifies the saying, “the rising tide lifts all boats,” as many universities are upgrading their facilities and negating the comparative benefit. With so many schools building football facilities, the only way to garner increased recruiting success may be to pursue uncommon facility upgrades. For example, a university may want to pursue creating projects not being pursued by rivals or utilizing unique architectural designs that have a chance to be more memorable for incoming recruits.


Somewhat surprising was that the few recruiting bumps we did see were related to the one or two-year period before the facility was completed. This finding may imply that the institution reaps more recruiting-related benefits from the promotion of a future facility than it does once the facility is completed and presented in physical form to interested recruits. This implies that athletic departments should seize on the positive PR flowing from these facility projects by breaking the projects into multiple phases, therefore allowing more time to market the “potential” of the new facilities before they become a physical structure.