As CU Buffs athletic director Rick George navigates uncertain future, there’s only one certainty: Change is coming – The Denver Post
Editor’s note: Last in a series looking at CU’s move from the Big 12 to the Pac-12 a decade ago. Today: CU’s future
BOULDER — The command center for navigating the Colorado Buffaloes through the pandemic is the home office for one of America’s busiest athletic directors.
Think you haven’t slept much since the coronavirus pandemic hit? Try being CU’s Rick George.
Dating back to March, the 60-year-old George has rarely caught a moment to relax, serving on at least a half-dozen national college athletics committees. He represents the Pac-12 on the Division II Council, helped develop a framework with legislators for athletes to cash in on name, image and likeness changes, and is a member of the College Football Playoff committee.
The Zoom calls never end.
“It’s funny, there are no hours of the day anymore,” George said. “It’s 8 o’clock at night and my wife is like: ‘Why are you on the phone?’ … Business.”
George, in his seventh year as CU’s athletic director, has yet to elevate Buffs football to national prominence. However, at a time when uncertainty hangs over the NCAA amid the coronavirus, George has ascended to become among the more prominent behind-the-scenes voices in all of college sports.
“Rick has a great way with people,” said Bill Hancock, executive director of the College Football Playoff. “He listens and uses all that he’s learned to come to a conclusion. Then he speaks his mind. … His experience has served him well at CU. You’re not going to surprise Rick. He’s seen it. He’s been there. He’s done it.”
But no one could see the emergence of COVID-19 and the damage it’s done to collegiate athletics. The initial quake from postponing the football season and limiting fan attendance is testing the financial resolve of programs across the country. Several schools have resorted to cutting non-revenue sports entirely. Budgets are being slashed. A wave of change to the college sports world is building strength.
George has spent the past nine months trying to chart the path forward.
“In our society, when some of our student-athletes weren’t around, there was a pre- 9-11 and a post- 9-11,” George said. “We’ll probably look at it the same with coronavirus. Life is going to look different and we’ve got to be ready to embrace those changes. … It’s forced us to look at every piece of our business. Do we need this? Do we need to invest more to make this better?”
Search for lost revenue
George’s top priority is ensuring the health and safety of student-athletes. A close second, though, is ensuring the financial viability of the athletic department, which will lose an estimated $12.7 million from the elimination of fans at home football games this fall — in addition to other losses that will cost CU millions more.
The Buffs are searching for new revenue streams, even embracing a connection to sports gambling, something that would’ve been unthinkable just a few years ago.
In September, CU announced a five-year corporate partnership with PointsBet, a global sports betting operator, as the first deal of its kind with an FBS college athletics program. For decades, the NCAA made a strong push against betting on college events. But Colorado legalized sports gambling in May, and the Buffs wasted little time formalizing a partnership.
“It’s no different than any of our other partnerships that we have with Avery (Brewing) or Coors or Pepsi, or what have you,” George said. “The same elements are in the relationship — it’s just a different industry that a lot of people aren’t up to speed on. But it’s one of the best-regulated industries in the country. And we’re going to work very hard with them and with others to ensure that things are going the right way.”
One logical route to making up financial ground is restructuring massive contracts. In 2020, at least 15 head coaches at major FBS programs will earn an annual salary of at least $5 million, according to USA Today. But athletic departments nationwide have already made salary cuts to account for COVID-19.
At CU, new football coach Karl Dorrell, men’s basketball coach Tad Boyle, women’s basketball coach JR Payne, and George have all accepted a 10% pay reduction through the fiscal year. It dropped Dorrell’s salary from $3.2 million to $3.04 million.
Will these cuts become part of a larger financial trend nationally moving forward?
“I hope coronavirus dramatically shifts the business of college athletics, and specifically football, that has made a lot of people a lot of money,” Pac-12 Network football analyst Yogi Roth said. “I would argue a lot of coaches, everywhere in the country in college football, would take a lot less money to coach.”
Meanwhile, the Pac-12 is banking its future economic success on a new TV contract that isn’t set to kick in until 2024 amid the backdrop of a constantly evolving and unpredictable media market. Mix in a global pandemic, as well as declining TV ratings, and is it really a safe bet that college football will continue to be a cash cow into the next decade?
The Pac-12 already trailed most of its Power 5 counterparts in annual revenue sharing before the pandemic set in. The Big Ten set a new record for the 2018-19 fiscal year, with $55.6 million in revenue distributed to each member school. The Pac-12 ($32.2M) also trailed the SEC ($45.3M) and Big 12 ($38.2-42M). But Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott remains optimistic that the revenue gap can be narrowed.
“Long-term, we feel we’re very well-placed with all our television rights coming up in 2024, and the value of college sports — football and basketball in particular — continue to rise,” Scott said. “Long-term, we feel very, very good about our competitive position.”
“Transformative shift” ahead
What Scott overlooks, though, is the potential for overwhelming change that uproots the entire system of major college sports as we know it.
Former CU standout Jeremy Bloom sparked the conversation way back in 2002 when he sued the NCAA to continue playing college football while collecting endorsement money from skiing. The rise in athlete activism reached a crescendo in 2020.
Pac-12 and Big Ten athletes successfully lobbied to play a football season and address social issues. Several states, including Colorado, have passed laws that allow college athletes to receive endorsement deals — forcing the NCAA to release its first proposals this week for how to manage NIL changes.
“I don’t think the NCAA is a willing or excited participant in this conversation — their hand is being forced,” Bloom said. “They’re trying to thread the needle here in a way that retains as much control on the revenue aspect of college athletics as possible. … In the not-to-distant future, I’m talking a couple of years, maybe less, there will be University of Colorado athletes signing endorsement deals and getting paid for autograph sessions. That is a transformative shift in the college sports landscape.”
George understands that CU’s surest path to financial stability is returning the football program to national prominence. The Buffs have appeared in one Pac-12 championship game (2016) since officially joining the conference in 2011, which is also their lone winning season over that stretch.
“Eight wins, that, to me, should be the standard there (at CU),” Roth said.
However, the Buffs’ football program has met or exceeded that total just four times (2001, ’02, ’04, ’16) over the past 20 years.
The Buffaloes are placing their collective hopes in Dorrell to finally establish football relevancy. An improbable 2-0 start this season has Ralphie running in the right direction. Dorrell, in his introductory news conference as Buffs head football coach, described CU as “a top-caliber program that has a lot of potential, and I’m excited to return it to that level.”
George remains confident CU has a bright future in the Pac-12.
“We’ve got to get football to where it historically should be,” George said. “I think we’re on track to do that and I want to see that through.”
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