Here's an interesting abstract from Chad McEvoy and the United States Sports Academy assessing The Impact of Elite Individual Athletic Performance on University Applicants for Admission in NCAA Division I-A Football.
Some points of interest:
After Flutie's Heisman win, Boston College saw an incredible 30% increase in admissions applications
Georgetown University had a 45 percent increase in admissions applicants in the mid-1980’s over a three year period in the wake of three Final Four appearances in the men’s basketball with star player Patrick Ewing
Northwestern University realized a 21 percent increase in applicants in 1995 a year after winning the Big Ten Conference football championship
Gonzaga University saw an increase of 59 percent in admission applicants from 1997 to 2000 following three years of unprecedented men’s basketball success
Data suggest a winning program increases out-of-state enrollment on a relative basis more than in-state
Kevin Durant doesn't just help your athletics program
This sort of effect is only concentrated in football and basketball - the only meaningful college revenue sports. Given the nature of basketball, a star player can have an exponentially greater impact than in football (though early NBA entry confounds).
If you want to understand why a small private school will pull out all stops to foster a big-time basketball program and indulge the unsavory world of street agents, runners, and AAU payoffs, you have to look beyond the athletic revenues (which are not inconsiderable): their ability to recruit a robust student body and provide differentiating factors vis a vis their academic/regional competitors depends on it. St Johns and Gonzaga are mediocre academically and extremely expensive but they are able to use big-time college basketball to forge a national identity that belies their actual quality.
Georgetown and Northwestern are interesting - elite academic schools who were able to use the pitch of a total student experience - big time athletics! - as a differentiator for Ivy league level applicants. It works.
I'd love to see an analysis of Duke and Stanford.
As for football, this meta-analysis helps us to understand why a school like Oklahoma would have their school president (and occasionally a governor or senator) meet with a high profile football recruit - though we snicker and roll our eyes at this sort of practice as bush league or small-time, Sooners' understand what big-time football and visibility does for their total university - particularly in attracting out-of-state kids and cementing in-state dominance over Oklahoma State.
Alumni giving also follows these patterns.
Recruiting elite high profile athletes in high revenue/high exposure sports isn't just a boon for an athletics program, it can also have a salutary effect on the broader academic institution. Visibility begets interest and applications and more applications gives you the ability to dramatically increase admissions without losing quality or significantly increase quality if you don't want to increase raw admissions. Either way, it's a moneymaker and/or a prestige builder.
Not the message any of us are hearing from the "big athletics is anathema to elite academics crowd", is it?