Rose Bowl will yield positive effects for University of Utah, and not just in terms of athletics

Before Utah plays Ohio State on New Year’s Day, the Rose Parade will feature Utah’s marching band in front of a worldwide TV audience

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham as the University of Utah football team practices for the Rose Bowl at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021.

Los Angeles • From the pageantry of the Rose Parade to their first New Year’s day in the storied Rose Bowl itself, Saturday will be a historic one for the Utah Utes.

This first Rose Bowl is of course a primary focal point this week in Southern California, but there is a larger macro perspective to consider.

In the weeks leading up to the school’s first Rose Bowl, Utah officials were expecting — in victory or defeat — the experience and exposure to be a massive win for the football team, the athletics department, and the university as a whole.

“That day will be all about the University of Utah, and that will be a great thing for the alums all over the world and anyone contemplating coming here,” Utah athletic director Mark Harlan told The Salt Lake Tribune in the lead up to the game. “It’s a remarkable moment for the university, and in any year, it’s a big deal for the schools that get to play in it, because of the eyeballs, the tradition, and the prestige. When it’s a university that hasn’t gone before, it’s extraordinary.”

How to quantify what exactly this week has done for the school is difficult, but there are some approximate numbers out there to help paint a picture.

At the Rose Parade on New Year’s Day morning, the Pasadena Tournament of Roses estimated there would be 700,000 spectators — thousands of them decked out in Utes gear — along the 5.5-mile route. Approximately 45.5 million people would watch the Rose Parade in the United States beginning at 8 a.m. PT, plus another 28 million viewers abroad.

The Rose Parade, which will feature the University of Utah marching band, will draw a worldwide audience over two-plus hours. Then comes Utah’s first Rose Bowl, a matchup against a name-brand opponent in Ohio State that will draw another worldwide audience, complete with what many expected to be an eight-figure viewership and a large Nielsen rating.

What exactly is going to happen for Utah in the wake of this week may be difficult to quantify, but the net result is going to be positive.

Harlan noted that Utah’s admissions office is sure to see a spike in applications as a result of this week, a notion that Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham echoed when he met the media Monday afternoon following a team event at Disneyland.

“I think there’s a ton of benefits,” Whittingham said. “I think you’ll see a spike in enrollment, particularly in out-of-state enrollment. I’m sure the community itself will see the positive effects. I’m not quite sure how you measure that, but I do know that the effects of going to this bowl are going to be far-reaching in the Salt Lake community and at the University of Utah.”

A spike in applications following major sports moments is not always the case, but there is enough evidence to suggest it is a real possibility. After TCU won the Rose Bowl to cap a perfect 13-0 season in 2010, one report stated that the Fort Worth, Texas school saw applications from California rise 109 percent, while applications from Oregon increased by 200 percent.

According to the Washington Post, Auburn’s national championship-winning 14-0 team in 2010 yielded a 16-percent increase in applications in 2011. Even the team the Tigers beat to win that national championship, Oregon, saw a 10-percent bump.

“We’ve seen it, obviously, in the enthusiasm for tickets, just getting there, the actual game, the parade, what have you. All we can do is look to other universities that have been through this process, and what they’ve seen is percentage increases in applications,” Harlan said. “We’ll see all of that. I think the university is doing a great job of looking at all opportunities to market this going forward, not only within intercollegiate athletics, but central campus.”

Of course, football success and playing in one of the highest-profile bowls in college football is often something that lends to donors wanting to further engage and potentially help with future capital projects. Harlan indicated, as he has in the past, that Utah is “never done” in trying to improve athletics facilities.

“As it relates to football, we are taking a deep, hard look at the practice facility for football,” Harlan said. “The Eccles Football Center is great and we know it’s one of the best in the West, and we want to make sure it stays in that same category. The Eccles Field House, we need to take a look at that, it’s been there for a long time, and the outer practice fields. What more can we do, how creative can we be to have the best practice facility.

“We’ll be looking at that, and we’ve been looking at that even prior to this season. In terms of football, those are the things we’re taking a look at.”

The 150,000-square-foot Eccles Football Center was built in 2013 at a cost of $32 million, while the Eccles Field House cost $6 million back in 2004. That 74,000-square foot facility houses one regulation-size FieldTurf field.

In terms of Rose Bowl ripple effects, one thing to ponder inside the athletic department is how all of this affects football season tickets. More specifically, the issue is not selling out Rice-Eccles Stadium. The athletic department has announced a sellout at 70 consecutive home games dating back to the 2010 season-opener vs. Pitt. The issue is more so what the renewal rate in future years will look like, not to mention the waiting list.

As a point of reference, in the spring of 2020, with no promise of a season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Utah had a 94-percent renewal rate with a waiting list sitting at roughly 3,000. In 2021, all six of Utah’s home games drew standing-room-only crowds beyond the listed capacity of 51,444.

Coming off a Pac-12 title and a trip to the Rose Bowl, plus the real possibility of opening 2022 ranked inside the top 15, there is no reason to believe the sellout streak will not continue, with the waiting list potentially ballooning.