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Wednesday, April 17, 2024
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Colorado’s Spring Game Is ‘A Reality TV Show’ Thanks To Deion Sanders

  • Thanks to Coach Prime, Colorado's spring game has massive hype, a sellout crowd, and a slot on ESPN.
  • FOS spoke with sources in and around the program about the weekend-long extravaganza.
CU-Boulder coach Deion Sanders runs spring practice.
Boulder Athletics

An athletic department’s best football marketing strategy is winning. When that isn’t a guarantee, there’s another option: hire Deion Sanders as head coach. 

Since their national championship in 1990, the University of Colorado-Boulder Buffaloes have faded from relevance, hitting a low point last season with an abysmal 1-11 record. 

But the program scored with Coach Prime, who brought star transfers Shedeur Sanders and Travis Hunter with him from Jackson State.

Because of Deion’s arrival, this year’s spring football game — a glorified open practice that previously drew just a few thousand fans — is one of the most anticipated of all time, enticing national media and a sellout crowd. ESPN, which will broadcast the event on its main network, has given Sanders an in-game mic to narrate his own extravaganza. 

The game is not just reinvigorating the Buffs’ fan base, but also creating economic benefits for the athletes, school, and surrounding community, sources in and around the team told Front Office Sports.

Athletic department officials hope it won’t stop there. They plan to make the spring game an annual celebration, using this year’s event as a blueprint for future seasons. 

“This is a reset for Colorado football,” Buffs Director of NIL, Sadie Baker, told Front Office Sports. “I think this [game] is a kind of a blueprint, kind of a starting point. A new moment for us to shine and get back to where we were.”

A Spring Homecoming Weekend 

Colorado Buffaloes fans do the famous “Buff Clap.” / Colorado Alumni

For the biggest legacy football programs, spring games draw major crowds and sometimes a big network slot. The Buffs have never come close to that kind of relevance.

“Colorado has no tradition of any energy and crowds around the spring game,” ESPN broadcaster and Buffs alumnus Chris Fowler told FOS.

Since the program began keeping records in 1953, no spring game has drawn more than 17,800 fans, according to Visit Boulder CEO Charlene Hoffman. Last year’s event drew just 1,950, and the 2021 game drew only 1,000 to Folsom Field, which has a capacity of about 45,000.

“In the past, it was more, ‘Oh, hey, ops meeting, parking lots open at this time. Oh, we expect a couple thousand,’” Senior Associate Athletic Director for External Affairs Alexis Williams told FOS. The team traditionally let fans in for free, providing limited concessions and staff. 

But this year’s game could not be more different. 

The team decided to sell $10 tickets, something many powerhouse SEC programs don’t even do. Several days before kickoff, the Buffs announced their first general admissions spring game sellout in school history. 

The athletic department is treating the event like another homecoming weekend, complete with gatherings of former players and a carnival in the tailgate area. On Friday, it hosted the department’s biggest donor event ever, according to Baker, which doubled as an NIL opportunity for athletes and a fundraising event for the school’s main NIL collective.

“We’re considering this almost like a practice run for our first home fall game,” Williams said.

For years, the team has had difficulty engaging its existing, regional fanbase for regular-season games in the fall. Naturally, the Buffs have had difficulty accommodating all the media outlets descending on Boulder in April, according to Baker.

Fowler, who has become a mainstay for ESPN college football programming, said that he doesn’t return to his alma mater often — he’s only called one game from the Buffs booth in his career. But when he saw ESPN had slotted the event on its main network, he volunteered. 

“I was excited about it,” he said. “I wanted to see them firsthand — them practice, and see how they were coming together, and get some time with the team.”

The broadcast will include Robert Griffin III and Quint Kessenich, as well as the mic’d up Sanders. “It’ll be as much of a talk-show as it will be a broadcast of the game,” Fowler said. “It’ll be kind of theatrical, I would think.”

The Lasting ‘Deion Effect’

Shedeur Sanders practices with Colorado.
Shedeur Sanders practices with Colorado. / Colorado Athletics

The Coach Prime effect has been in full swing all winter — from national media coverage and NIL deal interest to a season ticket sellout for the first time in 27 years. In addition to “re-engagement” of old fans, about a quarter of fans who purchased tickets weren’t in the team’s existing database, Williams said. 

On Saturday, Coach Prime will be able to tout his program on national television. Williams and Baker said multiple recruits will be visiting Boulder in person to take in the sights and sounds of the new Deion era. 

The entire university will benefit from the attention Sanders has brought through revenue and free marketing. The game itself serendipitously coincides with accepted students weekend for non-athletes, who must be “recruited” in their own way. 

For future enrollment, Williams wondered, “Do applications to the university increase? We do expect to see that. And also, is it a more diverse applicant pool applying to Colorado now?” 

The surrounding community is cashing in, too. Baker said that all the hotels within a 10-mile radius are sold out for the weekend. In the fall, lodging rates in the area are going for premium prices, and some are requiring a two-night minimum, according to Hoffman

The athletic department fully intends to keep the momentum going in future years. This year, the school branded the game and full slate of events as “Black and Gold Day.” 

“Our plan is, every year, to hopefully have the same kind of interest and blow this out,” William said. 

Sanders is fully on board. He’s spoken publicly about the benefits of spring games for athletic departments, even endorsing the concept of formal scrimmages between two teams. 

“That’s the smartest thing ever,” Sanders reportedly said. “You can’t play the schools that could possibly be on your schedule, but I think it’s a financial windfall for a lot of universities, you could go home in a way. It’s a tremendous opportunity.”

The biggest downside would be the risk of injury. But the NCAA may be amenable to approving the concept, given that it’s considering proposals for men’s basketball summer exhibitions. Those have been met with mixed reviews, however.

For now, Coach Prime and his team will put on their first show for fans both in Boulder and across the country.

“The environment itself is just crazy,” Baker said. “It’s so hard to explain, but I tell people I feel like I’m in a reality TV show — and every day you hear something or learn something new, which makes it more and more exciting for Saturday to come. … It’s electric.” 

This is probably the most hyped exhibition football game of all time. But the Buffs’ ability to keep the momentum going will depend on whether the team can actually win this fall.

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