Big-time college football is an athletic department’s moneymaker, but it’s also the costliest program to maintain. When a football program struggles to the extent Colorado‘s did over the last several seasons, the entire athletic department feels the pain of the lost revenue and the drain on resources.
The Buffaloes haven’t had a winning season since 2005, and the program has declined dramatically since then. The 2012 team, which won just one game, spurred the media to wonder whether the team was the worst ever.
The team’s struggles on and off the field were exacerbated by the move to the Pac-12 from the Big XII. According to Buffzone.com, Colorado expected a deficit in last year’s operating budget because of the hefty exit fee for leaving the Big XII, but the program didn’t plan to finish in the red two years in a row.
Revenue was down in part because the Pac-12 universities didn’t earn any revenue from the fledgling Pac-12 Network, which will change in the future as the network becomes more profitable.
A bigger factor was the Buffs’ poor play, which kept fans from shelling out their hard-earned to watch uninspired, losing football and led to the firing of head coach Jon Embree. Speaking with the media last week, Colorado athletic director Mike Bohn said the university missed the mark on ticket revenue “dramatically” — by more than $2 million — and he emphasized that the funds to cover the deficit wouldn’t come from tuition or state money.
The Buffs didn’t bring in as much money as expected, but the athletics department is still on the hook for even more money after buying out the contracts of Embree and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and investing in new head coach Mike MacIntyre and his staff.
If the new staff turns the program around and restores the pride of the winning teams from the late 1980s and early 1990s, the money will flow back in, and the investment will more than pay for itself. Like the move from the Big XII to the Pac-12, though, the coaching switch will come with a transition period; it might take a few seasons for the team to meet even conservative revenue goals.
The bad budget news comes just a few months after the university’s ambitious proposal to upgrade Colorado’s football facilities, to the tune of $170 million. CU planned a massive fundraising campaign to help finance the improvements and new construction, but if alumni and supporters aren’t even buying enough tickets to keep the program from losing money, they’ll probably be hesitant to throw that kind of cash at an athletic department that still must prove it can run a successful program.
The football team has yet to have a winning record since Bohn became athletic director. MacIntyre is his third football coaching hire in his seven years; the first two, Embree and predecessor Dan Hawkins, were both fired. Even those who believe in MacIntyre and his vision for the program should be cautious about making any sizable donations until the athletics administration can show that its finances are back on track and its teams are on the way to being competitive again.
The revenue share from Pac-12 Enterprises will be beneficial long-term, but ultimately, an improved product on the football field will be crucial to a fiscally healthy Colorado athletics department.