Saturday September 30, 2023

Deion Sanders Has Boosted Colorado’s Fortunes. Can He Live Up to the Hype?

  • Coach Prime makes his debut with Colorado on Saturday at TCU.
  • Sanders’ impact has been felt across donations, ticket sales, and media coverage.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Front Office Sports Today

Donovan McNabb and the State of Football

From Taylor Swift to the Prime Effect, there's a lot going on in the world of football.
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September 29, 2023 | Podcast
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The University of Colorado plays its first football game under new head coach Deion Sanders on Saturday, traveling to No. 17-ranked TCU for one of the most anticipated matchups in Week 1.

In a preview of a future conference battle in the new-look Big 12 in 2024, Colorado-TCU will be broadcast by Fox and featured as the network’s first “Big Noon Saturday” game of 2023. In Week 2, the Buffaloes will revel yet again in the Fox national spotlight for the school’s home opener against Nebraska on Sept. 9.

Fox’s early-season doting of Colorado is a treatment that networks typically reserve for blue bloods — last season’s first “Big Noon Saturday” telecast was a marquee matchup between Texas and Alabama. But thanks to Sanders, Colorado is the sport’s new media darling, despite not even sniffing the AP Top 25 — the Buffaloes (1-11 in 2022) are ranked in the 80s in most major polls.

With the season finally here, all eyes are now on what results Sanders can bring to Colorado.

Prime Numbers

The hype is no surprise for anyone following college football over the past nine months. 

In December, 2022, Sanders signed a five-year, $29.5 million contract — typically way out of Colorado’s budget. “We don’t have the money yet,” Colorado athletic director Rick George admitted at the time. “But I know we’ll have it so I’m not worried about that piece.”

Since then, the Prime Effect has hit Colorado across the board. 

In April, the school announced football season tickets had sold out for the first time since 1996. Later that month, Colorado was the only school in the country to have its spring game broadcast on the main ESPN network — and the exhibition contest drew more than 550,000 viewers.

Then the money came pouring in: Sanders’ arrival also corresponded with a record-breaking $28 million in donations to Colorado’s Buff Club for the 2023 fiscal year — a major increase on the $20.2 million raised in 2022.

Box Office Boost

This week, Colorado-TCU just had standing room-only tickets available for purchase and the game had been outselling last year’s season opener — when the Buffaloes hosted the Horned Frogs in Boulder — by more than 11 times on the secondary market, according to data provided to Front Office Sports by StubHub. 

TCU, last season’s College Football Playoff runners-up, are expecting huge crowds for the “Big Noon Kickoff” festivities from Fox on campus, and the average resale ticket price for Saturday’s game was $239, compared to $198 last year. 

Next weekend will be even more expensive — when Colorado hosts Nebraska in its home opener — which has been outselling Colorado’s 2022 home opener against TCU by over 1,500%. The average resale ticket price is $434 on StubHub.

The price to see Colorado anywhere has risen dramatically in 2023. SeatGeek has the average resale ticket price for Colorado home games this season at $302 and $209 for road games — both huge increases from 2022.

The Path Ahead

The 2023 season will be a bit of a transition year for Colorado, as the school completes its final year in the Pac-12 before returning to the Big 12 next summer, and Sanders looks to construct a roster in his image. Urban Meyer has called this Colorado season the “ultimate experiment.”

This offseason, Colorado compiled the top-ranked class of transfer athletes and the 21st-ranked recruiting class, according to 247 Sports. And although most sportsbooks have Colorado’s over/under win total set at 3.5, those college football leaders are taking him seriously. “I have as much respect for him as anyone in our profession,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

This season, the Buffaloes will certainly be under the microscope — Amazon is following Sanders this fall for a docuseries on his first season coaching at Colorado. “They came here because they wanted the light,” Sanders says of his players. “They wanted the smoke, they wanted the attention.”

There are some uncertainties, too. Sanders, who has a recent history of health issues, had another scare this offseason that required surgery to remove blood clots from his legs. Any potential missed time from Sanders would be a major blow to the program.

And while the hype — and financial boost — has been incredible since Sanders was hired, it remains to be seen if Colorado boosters and other key power brokers will continue to back the football team if it doesn’t show marked improvement on the field.

“I don’t care about culture,” Sanders has said. “I don’t care. I don’t care if they like each other, man. I want to win.” 

And that sentiment will no doubt be shared by Colorado’s fan base and backers. While it could take time — potentially several seasons — to become a winning team again, the fanfare and increased interest won’t last long if the on-field results aren’t there.

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