To the editor:
In a recent editorial "KU needs to do a better job of capitalizing on sports success," Dolph Simons Jr. argued that the success of a KU capital campaign will be enhanced by the success of the football and basketball teams. The editorial claims that "History shows ... athletic success usually results in greater private giving," and supports this allegation with an anecdote from some avid alumni who were involved in a previous campaign. Anecdotes aside, the statistical evidence is not so convincing.
The most recent study of the impact of athletic success on donations looked carefully at the behavior of alumni over the period 1983 to 2006 at a prestigious, but anonymous, university with a big-time athletic program. (Jonathan Meer and Harvey Rosen, "The Impact of Athletic Performance on Alumni Giving," National Bureau of Economic Research, 2008). After the impact of factors such as the general economic climate are taken into account, the success of the athletic teams had little effect on giving, especially not on donations to the nonathletic parts of the university.
What was most striking, however, is that football and basketball success did not have a positive impact on giving by those who were not former athletes, and sometimes had a negative effect. The possible explanation offered is that "when alumni see success among these teams, they may believe that the school is spending too much on these athletic programs, and therefore reduce their giving." Hard to imagine, isn't it?
KU, of course, could be different. Perhaps it is time for a small, well-respected group of individuals, or an economist, to examine the historical record of the impact of athletic success on alumni giving to the nonathletic programs at KU.