How CU transformed its football program with the Deion Sanders hire
BOULDER — Evaluating the performance of a college football coach is typically pretty straightforward.
Metrics such as wins and losses, NFL draft picks and ticket sales, student graduation rates and grade-point averages can paint a pretty accurate picture of success or failure, but it takes time to tally those metrics.
For the University of Colorado Boulder, which hired former NFL and MLB star Deion Sanders to helm its football team just two weeks ago, measuring success at this moment is more ethereal than numerical. It’s a buzz around town, a vibe in the air. It’s a shift in attitude, an embrace of expectations.
No matter how you quantify it, Coach Prime has transformed CU football. And we still have nine months before kickoff against Texas Christian University in week one of the 2023 season.
“Before CU plays a single game, there’s all this hope and energy,” Colorado State University College of Business professor Todd Donovan said. “When you bring in someone who’s a celebrity in many ways, that’s going to just up everything to another level.”
That excitement is already paying tangible dividends for CU’s athletic department.
On Dec. 7, less than a week after Sanders’ hiring was announced, the Colorado Buffaloes Football official Twitter account tweeted that the program had already garnered 1,410 season ticket deposits, sold a single-day record of $49,800 in merchandise, recorded more than 42.3 million social-media impressions and added more than 173,000 new followers.
“This is just a taste of what they’re going to experience” if Sanders — who transformed the Jackson State University football program, going undefeated this season — lives up to expectations on the field, CU Leeds School of Business professor Alixandra Barasch said.
Because Sanders has proved his ability to turn around a program, albeit at a lower level of football competition than CU faces in the Pac12 Conference, “this is a substantive hire, not just a fun hire,” she said.
Prime Time’s arrival in Boulder has signaled a shift in how sports are prioritized at CU.
The NCAA in 2018 created the transfer portal, which allows student-athletes to move between schools without sitting out a penalty year, so long as certain credits can transfer to the new school.
At many other universities, there are general-education or physical-education programs established to ease the credit-transfer process. CU has had nothing like that — making the university a less-attractive transfer destination for many athletes — until now. School officials, after Sanders was brought on, said they will look to establish a program for matching transfer credits to CU’s educational framework.
“We’re working to give Coach [Sanders] and all of his student-athletes the skills they need to succeed,” CU Chancellor Phil DiStefano said.
Sanders is already cashing in on CU’s willingness to embrace the portal. He’s indicated that top recruits from Jackson State and around the country — including his son Shedeur Sanders, who is expected to be the Buffs starting quarterback in 2023 — will be following him to Boulder.
“Because his brand is so big, instantly the guys in the transfer portal are going to gravitate there,” Donovan said.
Another recent NCAA evolution that some close to the CU football program hope to take better advantage of under the Sanders regime is the ability for students to benefit monetarily from their names, images and likenesses, known as NIL.
It’s unclear how active Sanders, who has said his focus is getting players paid by the NFL rather than by a local car dealership, will be in courting NIL deals. “I’m not crazy about the NILs, but I understand the NILs,” he said during his introductory press conference.
What is clear is that his mere presence raises the profile of the football program and boosts the NIL value of the team’s players.
“I hope he’s supportive of young, Black men being compensated in some way beyond a scholarship,” Boulder County NAACP chapter president Annett James said. “… College football players should be compensated. They bring so much to these universities, at the very least they should be able to share” in some of the economic activity generated by college sports.
Boulder’s shops, restaurants, bars and hotels are major beneficiaries of that football-generated economic activity, especially on gameday Saturdays.
“Sporting activities have become an important aspect of the leisure industry, and destinations have learned that utilizing sports events are strategic tools for improving their overall visitor economy,” Boulder Convention and Visitor Bureau CEO Charlene Hoffman said in an email. “Unlike Denver, Boulder doesn’t have the venues to host major professional sporting events. However, Folsom Field has the capacity like that of Denver’s Coors Field. CU’s hiring of Deion Sanders as the new head football coach will likely fill our stands to full capacity with passionate and excited fans, every game. This will produce significant business and economic impacts in Boulder.”
When there’s communitywide interest in the football team, Boulder businesses do better, she said.
“For instance, over Family Weekend in October (the only game CU won this season), our hotel occupancy was 96%, and the average daily rate was $436,” Hoffman said. “Compare that to our last home game where occupancy was 48% and average daily rate was $166. Therefore, the excitement doesn’t stop in CU’s locker room or on CU’s campus. There’s a great deal of optimism within Boulder’s restaurant and hospitality industry with this news” of Sanders’ hire.
That hire, despite its transformational potential, doesn’t come without risk.
The Boulder community, at least in this early honeymoon phase of its relationship with CU’s new coach, loves Prime. But will Prime love Boulder back?
“The university has a tendency to isolate people, so they don’t get to know the community here,” James said. That isolation can feel particularly acute for Black men in a community that’s nearly 90% white.
“I think we might have seen some of that play out with [former CU head football coach Mel] Tucker,” she said.
Colorado’s African-American community is “exceptionally excited [to welcome Sanders]. Everyone I’ve talked to is just elated,” James said. “… We want to be supportive because we know he’ll need it. We’re looking forward to the opportunity to meet him and just say, ‘We’re here if you want to come over for Sunday dinner.’”
The hope is that support extends to the broader Boulder community, some of whom may be uncomfortable with Sanders’ brash, at times confrontational demeanor.
Sander is “not someone who is always careful about what they say. …He can be a wildcard, and that’s dangerous from a brand perspective,” Barasch said.
But the level of excitement generated by the hire combined with Sanders’ tangible track record of success as a player across multiple professional sports, and as a coach at Jackson State “mitigates some of the risk factors,” she said.
Sports success, even one-time events, can have the power to impact an entire campus.
Take George Mason University in Virginia, for example.
The team’s 2006 men’s basketball team represented the embodiment of a March Madness Cinderella story, making an unprecedented and entirely unexpected run to the Final Four.
As a result, the university estimates that it received $677 million in free publicity from television, print and radio media. Admissions inquiries jumped by 350% and out-of-state admissions increased 40%.
“I do see major potential for spillover effects” across the campus. “Let’s say I was on the fence about whether to apply, [the Sanders’ hire,] just in terms of brand awareness, gets you over the hump in terms of throwing your application into the ring,” Barasch said.
Editor’s note: This article has been edited to correct the spelling of Annett James. BizWest regrets the error.