University of Colorado Boulder Athletics at a Crossroads
Here are four ideas to bring CU Athletics into the 21st Century
No one has asked me but were I to advise University of Colorado Boulder leaders and administrators about the future of its athletics programs this post summarizes what I would tell them. Before doing that, let me just briefly tell you about my long relationship with CU Athletics.
My 35-year Love Affair with CU Athletics
I came to the Boulder campus in 1986 as a freshman aerospace engineering student, fully immersed in the college football culture of the late 20th century. And what a glorious time it was. My first game as a student was a soggy, damp affair – a dismal loss to Colorado State, followed up in my dorm room by a taunting phone call from my parents (not at all football fans), as my father was a professor at Colorado State. From there however, it was only up, up and away, for the mighty Buffaloes and for my love of CU Athletics.
I lived those golden years of Colorado football. Not just as a fan, but as a classmate of the players. Pick-up basketball at the Canyon court with Sal Aunese and Okland Salave'a. House parties with the O line, who roomed with two of my high school buddies on the Hill (I can still hear the GN’R). And of course, going to the Orange Bowl and a national championship.
Upon entering graduate school at CU Boulder, my interests took a turn and I decided I’d like to know how it all worked, from the inside. I landed a job with CU Athletics as a mentor/tutor and eventually was assigned as the main tutor for all subjects for the men’s and women’s basketball teams. I even sat on the bench with the men’s team at the Big 8 tournament in 1993. I got to know many athletes, administrators and coaches and in the process saw college sports from an entirely different perspective. What I learned was both fascinating, and also troubling. The dissonance between my naïve undergrad fandom and my challenging grad experiences helped spur my interest in sports governance.
Flash forward to 2013, when I (now a full professor at my alma mater) proposed to the Provost and Athletics Director (then Mike Bohn, who is now in that role at USC) that we create a Sports Governance Center inside CU Athletics, building a bridge between athletics and academics which at Boulder were typically far removed from each other. That proposal took off after Rick George became the AD in 2013. From 2015 to 2019 I sat in Athletics – the only tenured full professor in the US with such a position – and developed a successful Sports Governance Center. Ultimately, the campus decided not to continue the experiment. But the opportunity provided me a window into CU Athletics and college sports that few faculty members ever get on any campus.
After all that, I am still a fan — of the program, the staff and administrators, and most of all, of the athletes. Over the years that I taught from within CU Athletics, notably my big Introduction to Sports Governance course, I had the opportunity to get to know well many athletes across all sports. I also had a chance to get to know administrators, coaches and staff. They are an amazing group of people, with a shared commitment and purpose. It was a fun and educational experience.
That said, today CU Athletics finds itself at a crossroads, due especially to a long track record of frustration in its football program. So now, back to my advice, focusing on four recommendations to bring CU Athletics into the 21st century.
First: Stop Trying to Return to the Golden Age
It is difficult to convey the deep nostalgic attraction that the Bill McCartney era (in yellow in the figure below) holds over many Colorado football fans, particularly of my generation. From 1980 to 1990, Colorado went from its worst football team since 1902 (as measured by ELO ratings) to its best, and a national championship. The current AD, Rick George, was on the CU football team’s staff during 1987 to 1990, the peak of the golden age on the field. George often speaks of his desire for CU to win championships – and across sports CU does win championships, just not in football since 1990.
The hard reality is that in 2021, Colorado is as far from competing for a football championship as it has ever been. Since the early 1980s, only 3 CU football teams have had a lower season-ending ELO rating (2011, 2012, 2013) than 2021, and 8 of the program’s worst 25 seasons by ELO rating since 1902 have occurred since 2012. Over the past decade the program has had four football coaches, and there are already calls from some for the current coach to be fired based on the poor 2021 season.
Michigan State’s head coach, Mel Tucker, who famously ditched Colorado a few years ago for a bigger salary and a bigger program, commented last week upon receiving a new $95 million contract, "I made it clear in my initial press conferences that I thought Michigan State was a destination job and not a stepping stone.” It is clear if not explicit that Tucker viewed his very brief stint at Colorado as a “stepping stone.” He wasn’t wrong – as his bank account now shows.
CU Boulder is simply not going to be able to compete for championships in football. For those still dreaming of 1990, as Westley says in The Princess Bride, “Get used to disappointment.” The fact is that we are now closer to 2050 than we are to the glory days of 1990. College sports have changed dramatically over the past three decades and are going to change further still. There is simply no going back to Colorado’s golden age. Get over it.
Second: Match Expectations for the Football Program to Current Realities
In 2020, CU Boulder raised over $13 million from donors in support of athletics, with about half of this ($6.3M) devoted to football. Those might seem like big numbers. But in contemporary college sports, they are tiny. According to the Knight Commission, in 2019, 25 schools raised more than $25 million for athletics, with Texas A&M topping the list at more than $85 million from donors, helping to support an overall athletics budget of almost $225 million.
In 2019, Colorado spent about $30 million of its $95 million athletics budget on its football program. This was half what Ohio State spent on football. In an era where $100 million coaching contracts have arrived and NIL, Alston and other benefits to players are becoming the norm, a mid-tier FBS school like Colorado simply cannot compete for the talent necessary to be competitive on the field with the elite programs. That’s just a fact. Consider that 11 college football programs currently have more than 30 former players in the NFL, with Alabama topping the list with 53. Colorado is tied for 42nd with 10 other schools, with 11 former players in the NFL.
So, what are the options for the football program? There are actually only a few:
· Reality be damned. Chase the dream. 1990 here we come. Until recently, this appeared to be the operating philosophy of CU Athletics and university administrators. Our chancellor is a huge football fan, having served as CU Faculty Athletic Representative several decades ago, and playing a prominent role in NCAA governance. But whatever is said by campus leaders, it is increasingly difficult to imagine how CU competes for football championships going forward given current realities. CU is not going to join the ranks of $200 million+ athletic budgets or $100M+ coaches anytime soon, if ever.
· Accept “stepping stone” status. There are plenty of programs whose role in the college football landscape is to permanently occupy the lower tier of programs – Vanderbilt, Rutgers and Kansas come to mind. And every once in a while, there will be a year like 2016, when CU went 10-4, to rekindle dreams of glory. This acceptance would appear to be the status quo, even if it goes unstated. Since 2005 Colorado football has had one winning season (aside from the truncated pandemic season), and this seems to be settling in, as uncomfortable as it may be.
· Rethink football. Colorado has long been a football school, dating back to the early years of the last century when CU students voted in 1902 to tax themselves substantially to support a football program. Just as it is a part of American culture, football is also a part of the culture of the University of Colorado. Football is not going away but it could be very different. How?
o Change conferences and leave the P5. Let’s be honest. CU football would have a hard time competing in the Mountain West. But it might be more regionally appropriate and offer a more competitive set of peers.
o Change divisions and leave the FBS. This would be a much more radical change. Competing against Montana and Idaho might not go over well with some, but it would fulfill the promise of actually allowing Colorado to occasionally (or even more often than that) compete for championships.
o Pull a University of Chicago and abandon football. This option is included just for completeness, but I cannot envision any plausible scenario that would have CU abandoning football. It is too much a part of the campus culture.
o Are there other options? Maybe -- Let’s hear them.
Whatever CU Boulder decides to do with football, it will be important for campus leadership beyond athletics to better articulate the role of athletics on campus, and especially football. If the goal is really to pursue a national championship, how will that be done with far less than half the financial resources of the programs that actually compete for championships? If lesser goals, what are they? And most importantly, how much campus resources should be devoted to these pursuits?
Third: Put Soccer in Folsom Field
The single most important thing that the University of Colorado Boulder could do to prepare its athletics program for 2050, rather than 1990, would be to put its women’s soccer program into Folsom Field, seen at the top of this post. Hosting its first game in 1924, Folsom Field is a college football icon. In fact, Folsom Field is so old that at present it is not even big enough to hold a regulation-sized soccer field.
But retro-fitting the stadium to fit a soccer pitch would be well worth the modest expense and minor loss of overall seating for several reasons.
First, Colorado athletics are dominated by football. Although it sponsors 17 sports, football is responsible for more than 85% of ticket sales and about one third of the athletic department budget. The soccer team brings in 0.2% of ticket sales, despite the massive popularity of the sport. In 2019, Colorado ranked 31st nationally in women’s soccer attendance with 850 fans per game, trailing BYU by well over 2,000 fans per game. Given the broad and deep interest in soccer in the Boulder and Front Range community, there is a huge potential upside to devoting greater attention to the CU women’s soccer program.
The record for attendance at a regular season women’s soccer game is 10,128 who attended a match between USC and UCLA in 2014. What if the University of Colorado Boulder set as a goal to break this record in Folsom Field? I’d have to think it’d be achievable, and a worthwhile goal for the program and the university. The pursuit of the record would itself be newsworthy and help CU in its soccer recruiting and overall reputation as a university that truly supports women’s athletics. Folsom Field would go from exclusively the domain of male athletes to be shared with female athletes as well, for the first time in 100 years.
In fact, equity aside, Folsom Field sits unused almost all of the time and is one of the university’s least-exploited resources. It hosts a half-dozen football games per year, the finish line of the Bolder Boulder 10k race every Memorial Day, July 4th fireworks and maybe a concert or two (though not in the past few years). The other 355+ days of the year it sits completely empty. What a waste.
There can be little doubt that university students and Boulder residents would welcome more chances to spectate in Folsom Field under the Flatirons. Currently, the university is discussing the building of a new soccer field well away from campus (at a location called CU South) which may serve to further marginalize the soccer program, which today plays on a nice field but one which is removed from central campus and has only a few temporary bleachers. It is amazing that it draws even 850 spectators. It is not a venue that says “we value this sport and these athletes” — in fact, much the opposite.
Not only would putting soccer into Folsom Field demonstrate that CU values women’s sports beyond a mathematical necessity required by Title IX, but it also would open up significant new revenue opportunities. Many universities have hosted summer exhibitions of professional teams, like Manchester United or AC Milan, in full stadiums. Soccer in Folsom would enable partnerships with the local MLS team (Rapids) and the possibility of hosting matches of US national teams. Ten or so home CU soccer games could thus be supplemented by 5 to 10 other matches, providing a much-needed source of revenue beyond football.
Looking even further out, a successful women’s program playing in Folsom Field could open the door to a new men’s soccer program that would call Folsom Field home, further diversifying the opportunities for revenue within CU Athletics. Putting soccer in Folsom Field is a no-brainer, and should be done regardless of what approach is taken to the CU football program. Imagine celebrating Folsom Field’s 100th anniversary by opening it to female athletes in 2024 to a full stadium shattering the women’s soccer attendance record.
Fourth: Balance the Budget
In an interview last week AD Rick George expressed a desire for CU Athletics to wean itself off of university financial support: “Support from the university is needed, as well, but George said he has a goal of getting the athletic department to a point where it doesn’t need financial support from the school.” George said explicitly, “I’d like to be self-supportive in the next three or four years where we can support all the different things that we need.” Let’s take this commitment seriously and explore what it would imply.
Over the past decade, CU Athletics has received more than $120 million in financial support from the university, in the form of student fees, and direct and indirect institutional support. Although only a small fraction of the overall campus operating budget (which exceeds $500 million per year), ~$12 million per year is nonetheless real money, especially during a time when the campus is experiencing overall budget cuts, some permanent due to enrollment declines caused by the pandemic.
Let me be perfectly clear: universities move money around all the time, typically from revenue generating programs to those that are not. There is no reason why every unit on campus must be revenue-positive -- that more accurately describes a business than it does a college campus. There is also absolutely no reason why a university which prioritizes athletics should not move money from other parts of the campus to athletics. Indeed, across FBS schools, according to research of the NCAA, universities provided about $4.4 billion of support to their athletic programs. It is a common practice.
Just like there is no issue with transferring money from, say, the Psychology Department to, say, the Philosophy Department, there is no issue with transferring money from tuition used to support academics to the athletic department. Of course, universities should be transparent in how such transfers are made and faculty should have a role in the institution’s governance. Of course, no one familiar with universities will be surprised to learn that such transparency and faculty governance is an aspiration too infrequently achieved. So if CU Boulder chose to invest more in athletics it could do so, and I’d be fine with that so long as we faculty had a say in the decision.
However, in the case of CU Athletics, the current AD has expressed a desire to eliminate the transfer of funds from the campus to athletics within the next 3-4 years. He should be held accountable to this commitment. The ~$12 million or so that is freed up will go a long way towards addressing some of the permanent budget cuts to academic programs that have resulted due to the pandemic. That would of course be welcomed by many faculty and students who have borne the brunt of these cuts.
In fact, the dramatic contraction of the budget of CU Athletics during the past few years might make the present a good time to start working toward its goal of eliminating student fees and institutional support. Such belt tightening might have the benefits of helping to focus attention on diversifying revenue sources beyond football.
To wrap up, athletics are a fundamental part of the University of Colorado Boulder campus, its culture and its history. However, the continuing struggles of its football program should prompt a rethink about both football and athletics on campus. The time is thus ripe for an open conversation about diversifying CU Athletics away from a football-centric view of sport and all that might imply.
Thanks for reading, I look forward to your comments.
The Honest Broker by Roger Pielke Jr. is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.