They've been fretting about the facilities arms race in college football for, oh, forever, and the retort is always the same: We have to build this new building, because this new building is the cost of doing business in college football.
Just about any time a new facility is announced or opened, you get a quote like this from Kansas's David Beaty:
“From a recruiting standpoint it is an instant position of strength. It puts us in a terrific position because the commitment level for athletics is there. It’s going to be there. That is an advantage. The great thing is our people understand what is needed. We have very intelligent leadership that understands this climate so well.”
Or this, from Clemson recruiting coordinator Brandon Streeter:
“You tell them about it on the phone and you tell them how special this new facility is, and they can see the virtual tour on the internet and all that stuff. But when they get there, they’re all saying wow, I didn’t know it was this big, I didn’t know you had all this stuff. And so it’s neat to see their faces and the parents and their faces.”
And, yes, each new facility seems to be bigger, more functional, nicer, sparklier and newer than the last. There is no denying that. But do they really help with recruiting?
Matt Huml, N. David Pifer, Caitlin Towe and Cheryl Rode studied the issue for Athletic Director U. and found that, no, new facilities do not automatically increase their schools' recruiting fortunes. The group studied 54 new facilities across the Power 5 and their affect on 805 collective seasons and found that said new facilities offered no appreciable impact. From the study:
The direct impact football projects represented the largest amount of facility projects during the time period of the study, yet their returns in recruiting were mostly non-significant. There were no recruiting improvements for direct football projects during the year before facility completion, nor the first and second year after the facility was completed. Only in the year right before a project was completed was there a marginally significant effect which showed that team recruiting rankings slightly improved before a facility project was completed.
Indirect football projects were also unlikely to improve recruiting, outside of a small, 0.9% improvement in a class’s rating in the season that followed a project’s completion.
The study did not account for the dozens of other factors that could affect why a recruit does or does not pick a given school, such as coaching changes, conference realignment, winning percentage and the like. But that kind of underscores the point: a new facility is just one factor for the vast majority of recruits, not the factor.
The study's authors also touched on another reason why new facilities may not provide a considerable bump in recruiting: every other school that recruits are visiting has a new facility on the way, just opened one, or both. From the study:
Another explanation is that new football and basketball facilities could have little to no effect on recruiting rankings because a large number of schools have made upgrades in the past 10-15 years. Prospective student-athletes would have many upgraded or new facilities to select from, meaning these new facilities would no longer stand out.
This doesn't mean that schools shouldn't invest in new facilities. Far from it. If a new facility increases functionality, helps workflow and keeps you in conversation with the Joneses in your conference, it's worth it. But if you're plunking down $40 million for the sole purpose of climbing the 247Sports Composite rankings, you're doing it wrong.
In other words: a new building will never be more important than the people inside it.
Take, for example, the testimony of 2018 5-star quarterback recruit Justin Fields:
“It doesn’t really matter, to be honest with you,” Fields told the Atlanta Journal-Constitutionlast year. “I don’t think they had to have all that. The facilities that a school has is not going to make you come to a school like a Georgia. It is really just the coaching staff, the way that I would fit into their offense and then the academic side of going to a school to play football to get my degree.”
Here's Streeter again: “You can highlight that stuff, and then you can sit them down and say look, this is all cool, icing-on-the-cake-stuff, but what we’re all about is the relationships. And when you can have both of those things, which we have now, we’re going to get a lot of guys that we want.”