New Reports on Esports and Football Show Trends at Smaller Colleges

CIC recently released research reports that examine the state of two sports—esports and football—at smaller independent colleges and universities. Although based on research completed before the pandemic, both reports address topics made particularly timely by the current health crisis: the rapid growth of esports programs and the longer-term impact of football programs on enrollment and revenue.

Esports and Independent Colleges

esports report coverCIC released Esports and Independent Colleges: Ready Player 509 (and Counting) in June 2020. Esports have seen a meteoric rise in popularity in recent years. This kind of competition is increasing faster than any athletic sport on college campuses, including at private nonprofit colleges such as those belonging to CIC, and can be conducted under conditions of quarantine or social distancing.

“Although esports may seem far afield from activities offered on traditional college campuses, they are part of the culture for many current students at American colleges and universities, including some who are collegiate, independent, and even professional esports players. Presidents and chief academic officers who are considering launching esports programs or recently did so will especially find this report of practical value,” noted CIC President Richard Ekman.

Esports and Independent Colleges explores the emerging issues of governance, diversity, intellectual property, cost, and enrollment in the collegiate esports arena. It outlines the strategic issues that college leaders should consider as they choose whether and how to involve their campuses in esports. Chapters offer perspective and guidance on the management and challenges of esports on campus and include, for example, an examination of the pros and cons of three potential models for esports, which can be established as a traditional athletic program, a club sport, or an academic program.

The researchers found that 509 colleges and universities that are members of CIC, or about five out of six of the total membership, had some form of esports on campus at the time the research was conducted in 2019. Many of those programs had been established within the past three years. Of those colleges with roster information online, the median roster is 18 students, with a minimum of one and a maximum of 68. The most popular games in terms of participating teams by far were League of Legends, Overwatch, and Rocket League (see figure below).

Esports and Independent Colleges was written by David Welch Suggs, Jr., associate professor in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications; Jennifer May-Trifiletti, doctoral student at the Institute of Higher Education; James C. Hearn, professor and associate director in the Institute of Higher Education; and Julianne O’Connell, doctoral student at the Institute of Higher Education, all at the University of Georgia. (Hearn, Suggs, and May-Trifiletti also are authors of Taking the Field: Intercollegiate Athletics on CIC Campuses, published by CIC in 2018.)

graph of games offered by CIC colleges and universities in 2019  

The Impact of Football on Independent Colleges

football report coverAt a time when many colleges were deciding whether to move forward with a football season this fall, CIC released a research brief that provides a critical look at whether the advantages of offering this popular sport outweigh the disadvantages.

“Contrary to the image of football being played only at NCAA Division I institutions, college football is quite popular at smaller institutions. In fact, roughly half the smaller private colleges and universities that are members of CIC have football programs. Presidents and CAOs who are contemplating the future of football at their campuses will likely find this report of great practical value,” Ekman said.

Pass or Run? The Impact of Football on Independent Colleges compares the experiences of CIC colleges and universities that have adopted football in recent decades with those that have never sponsored the sport. Also written by David Welch Suggs, Jr., Jennifer May-Trifiletti, and James C. Hearn of the University of Georgia, the report addresses the following questions:

  • Does enrollment, and male enrollment in particular, increase at institutions adopting football programs?
  • Do application numbers and yield rates change?
  • Does net tuition revenue increase?

The authors found that for many situations, adding a football team produced short-term benefits but mixed or even negative long-term effects. For example, average enrollment at football-adopting colleges and universities increased steadily for the years leading up to football adoption, but it leveled off in the years following (see figure below). Although adding football may benefit institutions that seek to appeal to a broader range of students, the authors note that institutions must also weigh football challenges, such as potential head injuries or reduced numbers of players coming from high schools.

The report concludes, “In short, football is not a strategic panacea for smaller private colleges. But in the right place, with the right personnel, and with a commitment to facilities and expenses, it may enhance college life and make an institution more attractive to a broader range of applicants.”

line graph of mean first-year enrollment at football-adoping CIC colleges