The Sweet Smell of Gridiron Success

Northwestern is the latest college to discover the payoffs, and price, of a winning season

THE Northwestern University Wildcats haven't packed their helmets and pads for next month's Rose Bowl just yet, but school officials are already counting the dividends here, both emotional and financial.

This year, Northwestern smashed a 23-year losing streak by climbing to the nation's No. 3 spot. By doing so, the Wildcats have hit the jackpot in the high-stakes game of collegiate football finance.

''Winning football provides a tangible reward in school spirit, alumni spirit, and national visibility,'' says Doug Whiting, director of public affairs at Boston College. And of course, more money.

Northwestern can expect income from ticket sales and merchandise licensing to surge. Because of the bowl invitation, alumni giving is also likely to rise, say sports economists and athletic directors at other colleges.

Northwestern is not the first school to profit from winning.

* At Boston College, revenues and admission applications jumped after the football program turned itself around under quarterback Doug Flutie.

* At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the once debt-ridden football team now hands over hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarship money each year to the school, thanks to a new, more aggressive coach.

Here in Evanston, the fruits of success are already tangible. Applications for early admission have outrun last year's figure by 23 percent. This fall, admissions office phones rang nonstop every Monday after a Saturday victory, says Rebecca Dixon, associate provost of university enrollment.

Still, the quest for pigskin paydirt is costly and risky. For every Cinderella team like Northwestern, colleges field dozens of extravagant and oafish wallflowers. Also, a university seeking gridiron glory risks not just high-priced ignominy but the stigma that football has run roughshod over academics.

''In the vast majority of cases college football programs don't pay for themselves and so it is a high-risk business,'' says Robert Baade, who specializes in the economics of athletics at Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, Ill.

''The financial return of a bowl game is potentially significant but the risks of getting there are great and so I would say the money is better spent elsewhere,'' he says.

Moreover, the payoff is often fleeting. Without a sustained program of publicity and team-building, alumni, fans, and college applicants can quickly embrace competing institutions.

AT least for a time, however, the benefits from what could be called the ''Flutie Phenomenon'' are undeniable. Boston College endured an 0-11 record in 1978 and had not competed in a bowl since 1942 before it granted a scholarship to Doug Flutie.

A 5-foot, 9-inch fourth-string quarterback, Mr. Flutie was called off the bench his freshman year as Boston College trailed Penn State 31-0. From then on, Flutie rarely stopped ''running and gunning.'' He led his team to three consecutive bowl games and won the Heisman Trophy in 1984.

By Flutie's senior year, admission applications at Boston College had jumped 20 percent. Football had become a moneymaker, largely because of television rights and ticket sales. Today, the football program annually turns over hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue to the college.

At Wisconsin, the football team has also transformed itself from parasite to patron. Before last year, Wisconsin had not earned a major bowl berth since 1963. Game attendance had shrunk steadily, and in 1990, the athletic department was $2.1 million in debt.

Then, led by a new coach appointed in 1990, Wisconsin last year won the Big Ten championship and went to the Rose Bowl. Ticket sales and merchandising royalties have brought in millions in the past two seasons, and in the past two years, the athletic department has handed over $700,000 to the university for scholarships.

The number of admissions applications also jumped, says Tom Reason, assistant director for freshman admissions. ''There is certainly some correlation to be drawn to the Rose Bowl, there's no question that kind of publicity and success helped,'' he said.

But like a line of scrimmage, admissions applications and team performance move both ways. Wisconsin football this year registered a sorry 4-5-2 record; admissions applications so far are down 15 percent, says Mr. Reason.

Northwestern officials dismiss any suggestion they are banking on a big windfall from the current ''Purple Passion.'' And like their counterparts elsewhere, they decline to disclose the income and expenses generated by football.

Already, though, the school has locked away ticket revenues from the highest average home attendance since 1968. And while Northwestern will not receive its licensing royalties from this fall until next year, ''there is a terrific demand for our products,'' says Gail Parsegian, licensing administrator.

Few colleges can expect to muster a bowl-bound team year after year. Consequently, athletic directors must field a blockbuster team every few years and maximize fan loyalty with a consistently winning program. ''You try to bring a winning consistency year in and year out and then when you hit a big year it's a bonus,'' says Mr. Gladchuk at Boston College.

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