The Prime Effect: Unpacking the impact Deion Sanders has on applicants at Colorado

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Deion Sanders’ Colorado Buffaloes lost twice as many games as they won in 2023. Yet, Coach Prime’s first season, which included the only nationally televised spring game, went hand-in-hand with a 20% increase in applications for Colorado’s 2024 incoming freshman class, totaling more than 68,000 prospective students — a record.

The Daily Camera noted that 50.5% of that increase in applications came from Black students. Just 2.7% of CU’s student body is Black.

Cause and Prime Effect. 

Colorado assistant vice chancellor of admissions Jennifer Ziegenfus credited Sanders for the exposure he has given the school, but wouldn’t go as far as saying Prime’s arrival is directly related to the rise in applications for admission to Colorado.

“It’s really difficult for us to draw a causational line between Coach Prime and this application increase,” Ziegenfus said.

Oh, please.

Ziegenfus’ opinion persists in higher education, though there is data to show there is a direct line between a college football program’s success — or in this case, head coach — and college admission applications.

Half of the top-spending research and development institutions in the country — at well over $1 billion annually in 2021 — have good, if not great, football programs: UCLA, Stanford, Wisconsin, 2023 national title runner-up Washington and 2023 national champion Michigan.

And those schools with large alumni bases and good — not great — football teams benefit most. 

According to the following report, Penn State’s athletic program brought in $181.2 million in revenue and spent just $170.5 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year, which makes the Nittany Lions one of just nine university athletic departments in the country to turn a profit. 

The football program was responsible for $105 million in revenue but spent just $60 million in expenses. That’s a business — a great business. FBS schools make a median net revenue of just under $16 million, which means that most football programs operate as the chief marketing arm for their respective universities. 

This is where a university like Colorado has, and can continue to succeed, with what is called the “Flutie Effect.”

The term comes from former Boston College QB Doug Flutie’s 48-yard Hail Mary pass to Gerard Phelan to beat Miami in the 1984 Orange Bowl. That win correlated to a 30% rise in applications at Boston College the next year, according to a 2013 study by Harvard professor Doug Chung.

“Overall, I find that athletic success has a significant impact on the quality and quantity of applicants to institutions of higher education in the United States,” Chung wrote in his research paper, “The Dynamic Advertising Effect of College Athletics.”

According to Chung, universities see an average increase of 17.7% in applications after going from mediocre to great on the gridiron. One prominent example would be the University of Texas, which went from 8-5 in 2022 to 12-2 in 2023, which included a Big 12 title and a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Colorado went 4-8 this past season and still saw a 20% spike in applicants.

In 2006, Alabama hired Nick Saban to be the head coach of its football program. The freshman class had just over 4,400 students at that time. By 2017, the school’s freshman class had grown to 7,400 students — 41% of which had an ACT score of 30 or better, compared to just 13% in 2006. Try telling Alabama’s admissions department that the school’s increase in enrollment had nothing to do with the Crimson Tide being the most dominant program of the 21st century.

Perhaps the drawback to consider is the “Flutie Effect” is only applicable if the football team continues to be great or is continually improving. Sustaining a winning culture is the most important factor, and playing on TV in front of enormous audiences is second. 

Coach Prime and Colorado already have the first down. And you’d be correct in saying the “Prime Effect” won’t last if the Buffaloes don’t start winning more games. But that’s next year’s problem. 

This year, 68,000 applicants applied to grow Colorado’s alumni donation base because Deion Sanders is the head coach.

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast “The Number One College Football Show.” Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young and subscribe to “The RJ Young Show” on YouTube.

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