Navigating Sports Politics as College Football Evolves — CU Buffs Aim High

Addressing reporters at the Pac-12 conference media day this summer, University of Colorado head football coach Karl Dorrell looked every bit the man in the maelstrom. For starters, the former UCLA coach used the words “challenging” and “disappointing” to describe the previous season, when the bowl-less Buffaloes ended up 4-8.

But that was then. Now, as Dorrell and a new offensive staff attempt to win games, bigger pressures lurk. The pending exits from the Pac-12 of the mighty USC Trojans, along with Dorrell’s alma mater UCLA, are two of them. The emergence of the college football transfer portal, which enables players to signal their desire to switch teams with a few keystrokes, is another. Then there’s the added flux stirred up by NIL – the acronym for “name, image, likeness” that allows athletes to auction off the rights for commercial use of their personas.

Somewhere in the mix, Dorrell has to actually coach a football team. But right now, devising formations and calculating fourth-down odds seem downright antiquated, given that college football at large is undergoing a pretty big jolt in the shoulder pads.  

CU’s football economic future hangs in the balance. As the university looked this summer for ways to grow football revenue beyond the roughly $43 million taken in last year, one consideration was to return to the Big 12 conference the university left behind in 2011. Alternatively, CU could hold fast to the Pac-12, hoping the conference can embolden its appeal with the addition of Boise State and/or other prominent programs.

No matter what CU does, the decision will have spillover effects on rivalries, fan interest, merchandise sales, season-ticket demand, TV ratings, and the colors of the uniforms worn by the opposing team.

READ — A Deep Dive Into the Wide World of Sports Podcasting

Fabulous Folsom

On a sun-blessed September afternoon at Folsom Field, there are few venues where a football game attains more grandeur. The stadium’s spectacular setting and the wild romp of 500-pound buffalo to inaugurate the game make for some serious pageantry.

The fans are into it. With loyalists pouring back after the worst of the Covid-19 scare, Folsom was near the top of the Pac-12 in terms of attendance last season: Average game-day crowds of 46,484 fans equated to more than 90 percent of Folsom’s roughly 50,000 available seats. Only Washington, USC, Utah and Oregon drew more fans in 2021.

But the local fervor hasn’t fully translated to the national stage. Through last season, Colorado ranked seventh out of the 12 Pac-12 teams in terms of national television viewers tracing to 2016 (but excluding the truncated 2020 season). Per the sports industry researcher Sports Media Watch, CU attracted bigger TV audiences than conference peers Utah, Cal-Berkeley, the two Arizona schools and Oregon State, but trailed Pac-12 belles USC,  Oregon, Stanford and UCLA, along with Washington and Washington State.

The national attention deficit reminds us that CU, which last won a bowl game in 2004, doesn’t control its own media destiny. Rather, it needs to draft on the airstream of more prominent peers to capture part of a media-rights pie that has been under intensive renegotiation in the wake of the USC and UCLA withdrawals.

There’s a lot happening here. The roiling of the Pac-12 dovetailed with: the SEC and the Big Ten prepping to expand to 16 teams by 2025; the Big 12 ushering in BYU, Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston for 2023; Notre Dame continuing to tease various conferences (because: Notre Dame); and a general “who’s on first” sort of madness prevailing. It seems like a long time since CU’s pivot to the Pac-12 and away from a lineage of hard-scrabble games across windswept fields in places like Norman, OK and Lincoln, NE.

Now, the move to the Pac-12 seems fraught. The loss of conference powers Oregon or Washington could further dilute the conference’s appeal, forcing CU’s hand as university administrators consider alternatives to maximize exposure and media revenue.

It’s within this environment that Dorrell, a trim, confidence-exuding veteran – he’s 34 years and counting into his football coaching career – must navigate. The job is ridiculously hard, pockmarked not just by competition for marquee high-school graduates but the intrusion of the transfer portal, which requires from coaches a new dexterity for keeping players happy when everybody knows a more promising gig is always just around the corner. (Dorrell, rather diplomatically, called the portal and its impact “a natural process of attrition.”) The NIL market presents still another distraction, with schools like CU lodged into a weird place. They can’t act as dealmakers or brokers for athletes, but they nevertheless play a role in providing the staging ground against which a player might break through to prominence.

Now, all Dorrell needs to do to pull off one of CU’s more improbable comebacks is to find a way to win football games, snare a bowl bid, keep athletes in the fold, make sure CU remains relevant on the national TV scene, create an attractive backdrop for NIL profiteering, and keep CU at the forefront of any future conference maneuvering.

That, convert some third-and-longs, and beat USC on the road. To which we say: You go, coach.