As CU Buffs athletic director Rick George navigates uncertain future, there’s only one certainty: Change is coming

Editor’s Note: The latest in a series that looks at CU’s move from the Big 12 to the Pac-12 a decade ago. Today: the future of CU

BOULDER – The command center for navigating the Colorado buffalo through the pandemic is the home office of one of America’s busiest athletic directors.

Do you think you haven’t slept much since the coronavirus pandemic? Try to be Rick George from CU.

Dating back to March, 60-year-old George rarely has a moment to relax, as a member of at least half a dozen of the university’s national athletics committees. He represents the Pac-12 in the Division II Council, helped develop a framework with lawmakers for athletes to take advantage of changes in name, image and likeness, and is a member of the College Football Playoff committee.

The Zoom calls never end.

“It’s funny, there are no more hours of the day,” George said. “It’s 8pm and my wife says, ‘Why are you on the phone? ‘ … For 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 the NCAA is rife with uncertainty during the coronavirus, George has risen to become one of the more prominent behind-the-scenes voices in all sports in college.

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“Rick has a great way with people,” said Bill Hancock, Executive Director of the College Football Playoff. “He listens and uses everything he has learned to come to a conclusion. Then he expresses his opinion. … His experience has served him well at CU. You’re not going to surprise Rick. He saw it. He’s been there. He did it. “

But no one could see the rise of COVID-19 and the damage it has done to collegiate athletics. The initial earthquake by postponing the football season and limiting the number of fans is testing the financial determination of programs across the country. Several schools have resorted to cutting out non-income sports entirely. Budgets are drastically reduced. A wave of changes in the university’s sports world is building strength.

George has spent the past nine months trying to chart the way forward.

“In our society, when some of our student athletes weren’t there, there was a pre-9-11 and a post-9-11,” George said. “We will probably look at it the same with the corona virus. Life will look different and we must be ready to embrace those changes. … It has forced us to look at every part of our business. Do we need this? Should we invest more to make this better? “

Look for lost income

George’s top priority is to ensure the health and safety of student athletes. A close second, however, is to ensure the financial viability of the athletic division, which will lose an estimated $ 12.7 million this fall from knocking out fans at home football games – among other losses that will cost CU millions more.

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The Buffs are looking for new streams of income, even embracing a connection to sports gambling, something that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

In September, CU announced a five-year business partnership with PointsBet, a global sports betting operator, as the first deal of its kind with an athletics program from FBS University. For decades, the NCAA has 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 from all of our other partnerships that we have with Avery (Brewing) or Coors or Pepsi, or whatever,” said George. “The same elements are in the relationship – it’s just a different industry that a lot of people aren’t aware of. But it is one of the most regulated industries in the country. And we are going to work very hard with them and with others to make sure everything goes well. “

A logical way to find a financial base is to restructure huge contracts. By 2020, at least 15 head coaches from major FBS programs will earn an annual salary of at least $ 5 million, according to USA Today. But national athletics departments have already implemented salary cuts to account for COVID-19.

At CU, new soccer coach Karl Dorrell, men’s basketball coach Tad Boyle, women’s basketball coach JR Payne, and George all accepted a 10% pay cut during the fiscal year. Dorrell’s salary was reduced from $ 3.2 million to $ 3.04 million.

Will these cuts become part of a larger financial trend nationally?

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“I hope that the coronavirus will drastically change the athletics activities in college, and especially football, which has brought in a lot of money,” said Pac-12 Network football analyst Yogi Roth. “I would say a lot of coaches, all over the country in college football, would cost a lot less money to coach.”

Meanwhile, the Pac-12 is basing its future economic success on a new TV contract that won’t start until 2024 amid a constantly evolving and unpredictable media market. Mix a global pandemic, as well as declining TV viewing figures, and is it really a safe bet that college football will remain a cash cow for the next decade?

The Pac-12 already had most of its Power 5 counterparts behind it in annual revenue sharing before the pandemic started. The Big Ten set a new record for the 2018-19 fiscal year, with $ 55.6 million in revenue spread across each member school. The Pac-12 ($ 32.2 million) was also behind the SEC ($ 45.3 million) and Big 12 ($ 38.2-42 million). But Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott remains optimistic that the revenue gap can be narrowed.

“In the long run, we think we’re very well positioned with all of our television rights coming in 2024, and the value of college sports – football and basketball in particular – continues to rise,” said Scott. “In the long run, we feel very good about our competitive position.”

“Transformative shift” ahead

Wide receiver Jeremy Bloom # 15 of ...

Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Wide receiver Jeremy Bloom (15) of the Colorado Buffaloes catches a 33-meter pass against the Washington State Cougars’ defensive back Erik Coleman (27) to set up a touchdown at Folsom Field in Boulder on September 13, 2003. Washington State defeated Colorado 47-26.

What Scott overlooks, however, is the potential for overwhelming change that is uprooting 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 in court for continuing to play college football while raising money from skiing. The rise of athlete activism peaked 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 allowing college athletes to receive approval agreements – forcing the NCAA to publish its first proposals this week for managing 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 keeps as much control as possible over the income aspect of college athletics. … In the not-too-distant future, I’m talking in a few years, maybe less, athletes from the University of Colorado will be signing approval agreements and getting paid for autograph sessions. That’s a transformative shift in the university’s sports landscape. “

George understands that CU’s surest path to financial stability is to get the football program back nationally. The Buffs have appeared in one Pac-12 championship game (2016) since they officially entered the conference in 2011, which is also their only winning season along that stretch.

“Eight wins, that should be the standard for me there (at CU),” Roth said.

However, the Buffs football program has only reached or exceeded that total four times (2001, ’02, ’04, ’16) in the past 20 years.

The Buffalos are pinning their collective hopes on Dorrell to finally establish football relevance. An unlikely 2-0 start this season has led Ralphie in the right direction. Dorrell described CU in his introductory press conference as Buff’s head football coach as “a top-level program with a lot of potential, and I’m excited to bring it back to that level.”

George remains convinced that CU has a bright future in the Pac-12.

“We need to get football where it is historically supposed to be,” said George. “I think we’re on the right track to do that and I want to see that through.”