Rick George can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
With vaccinations opening up to adults of all ages in Colorado on Friday, fans returning to Coors Field and Ball Arena this week in Denver, and COVID-19 restrictions slowly being lifted across the state, there’s reason for optimism in Boulder.
Still, Colorado’s athletic director remained cautious in speaking with media over a Zoom video conference Thursday, offering no guarantees the school will fill Folsom Field for CU Buffs football games next fall.
“I think we can fill (the stands) if we have the opportunity to do that,” George said. “Our desire would be to put as many people as we can safely inside our stadium and into our events center.”
George said COVID-19 still has yet to “enter our facilities,” 13 months into the pandemic. Out of 14,395 virus tests conducted on student-athletes, only 92 came back positive (0.64%), he said. Of all the things CU athletics accomplished during the past year, that might be among the most impressive.
Here are some other notable comments from George during a wide-ranging “State of CU Athletics” session:
The story: Due to revenue limitations imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic, CU athletics will run at a deficit between $18 million-$20 million for fiscal year 2021, according to George. The school will be borrowing from a Pac-12 loan program set up by the conference to help offset the losses.
George said: “We’ll work through that once we know what the number is. As far as the terms of what that would look like, it’s probably something that we’ll take out of future (conference) distributions, and we’ll budget appropriately to be able to do that.”
Takeaways: Shortfalls are most directly tied to the abbreviated football season and the inability to sell tickets for football ($19.8 million FY2020) and men’s basketball ($3.02 million) games amid the pandemic. The hope is CU’s budgetary woes will wane when fans return in 2021-22.
The story: The Pac-12 is searching for a new commissioner with Larry Scott stepping down this summer. The conference selected TurnkeyZRG to lead the search for Scott’s replacement, with the firm recently posting on its site that the Pac-12 is looking for “individuals who have learned and mastered the quickly evolving business of sports, sports media, sports marketing, and sports performance.”
George said: “I think it’s a great job because I think there is a tremendous amount of upside for us to get our reputation at a higher level than it currently is. … I just hope it is somebody that has campus experience so they know how to navigate what we’re doing on our campuses.”
Takeaways: It is notable George mentioned a preference for a candidate with “campus experience.” This has been among the larger debates surrounding what sort of candidate the conference should target — someone ensconced in college athletics or someone with ties to the television media business who might be better suited to negotiate the conference’s next media rights deal and clean up the Pac-12 Network mess.
Vaccinations on campus
The story: The state of Colorado is opening vaccine eligibility to everyone 16 or older starting Friday, meaning all athletes and coaches will soon have access to inoculations, as well as fans who could potentially fill Folsom Field in the fall.
George said: “We’re going to encourage our student-athletes and our staff to get vaccinated, but it’s certainly an individual decision and we will respect that decision. … If everybody can start getting vaccinated starting (Friday), I think that gives us great hope to be able to come back and put fans in Folsom Field and our events center.”
Takeaways: The message is clear: If fans want to see a packed Folsom Field in 2021, the best way for that to happen is for an overwhelming majority of the public to get vaccinated.
NCAA Tournament success
The story: For only the second time in conference history, the Pac-12 sent three teams to the Elite Eight of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, with one (UCLA) moving on to the Final Four. All told, it was the most lucrative tournament in conference history, according to the San Jose Mercury News’ Jon Wilner, bringing a total of $38,647,159 to conference coffers.
On the women’s side, Stanford and Arizona are Final Four-bound, with the former in a position to end the conference’s 29-year national title drought. And locally, the CU men claimed their first NCAA Tournament win since 2012, while the CU women returned to the postseason with a WNIT bid.
George said: “From a perception standpoint I think our conference has made a significant statement. To be able to have five teams in there, versus some that had nine in a conference, to be able to have the run that our conference has made… I think the reputation of our conference has taken a positive hit, which I think is important for us.”
Takeaways: After years of dispiriting results, negative national headlines and the shortest season in major college football, the Pac-12 finally has something to stick its chest out about. The timing couldn’t be much better, either, given that it provided unexpected revenue ($3.22 million per school) to departments sorely in need of it.
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