Deion Sanders is Colorado’s $280 million man (after four games)

Deion Sanders is Colorado’s $280 million man (after four games)

Colorado is paying Deion Sanders $29.5 million over five years. But what has he been worth to the university? The estimate is $280 million.

Colorado athletic director Rick George gave a surprising answer last year when asked how he came up with enough money to pay for his new football coach, Deion Sanders.

This was on Dec. 4, the day he introduced Sanders in Boulder.

“We don’t have the money yet,” George told reporters then. “But I know we’ll have it.”

Ten months later, it turns out the university found the money. And it wasn’t hiding under the cushions of the sofa. It came instead from a return on investment with Sanders that has become shocking in scope, unlike anything ever seen less than a year after hiring a new college football coach.

Two numbers sum it up. Here’s what Colorado is set to pay Sanders over five years through 2027, according to his contract with the university:

∎ $29.5 million, including $5.5 million this year.

Here is the estimated return value on that investment just one month into his first season:

∎ $280 million.

What that number means

The $280 million is a conservative estimate compiled by USA TODAY Sports. It includes increases in football ticket sales from last year ($20 million), increases in donations ($8 million), increases in other categories (at least $3 million) and the estimated value of the increased media exposure that came with hiring a Pro Football Hall of Famer who attracts so many cameras ($249 million).

The actual number is likely much higher but couldn’t be estimated because data for some revenue categories wasn’t available, including donations to the school after June 30 and merchandise sales at campus stores.

“Given who he is, we had incredibly high expectations when Coach Prime arrived, and he has still exceeded them in every facet, including on the field, in the classroom and by generating a nationwide excitement that has made CU Boulder the epicenter of the sports world,” the university said in a statement to USA TODAY Sports.

Here’s how it breaks down:

Earned media impact: $249 million difference

The massive media exposure for Colorado under “Coach Prime” is like a constantly recurring national advertisement for CU. It’s called “earned media.” It is not cash revenue, but it can have enormous value, which can lead to cash in other ways over time, including sales and donations as the university’s audience expands.

From Dec. 4 until this week, CU has generated 68,536 mentions in the media, according to data provided by the university from Cision, the university’s media-monitoring service. That has an estimated advertisement equivalency of $375 million, as calculated by Cision. It includes TV viewership, radio, online and print media but does not include social media mentions, according to the university. By contrast, over the same period a year earlier, CU had 17,674 media mentions for an estimated ad equivalency of $126 million.

The difference is roughly $249 million just four games into the season.

“Make no mistake – the university has 100% gotten its return on investment in terms of earned media value,” said Annie Scranton, founder of Pace Public Relations in New York and author of a book about earned media. “A traditional way to measure the value of earned media is to compare it to correlated ad space. It’s not even close. Given how often, and how many media outlets are talking about Deion, I definitely think that in five years time, the equivalent of earned media value is $1 billion or more.”

What that means to Deion Sanders

Sanders’ flamboyant personality, fame and success brought the spotlight to Boulder all month. The Buffaloes have drawn more than 35 million viewers combined for their games so far on Fox, ESPN and ABC. “Coach Prime” also appeared on “60 Minutes” on CBS on Sept. 17, drawing nearly 12 million viewers.

In September alone, after four games, CU has generated 31,227 total media mentions for an estimated ad equivalency of $128 million, according to the Cision data. It will go even higher after Colorado’s next game Saturday against No. 6 Southern California.

“I think ESPN is mandated to mention us at least once a hour,” Sanders said on the Colorado Football Coaches Show Sept. 21. “At least once a hour, (broadcasters are) gonna talk about something with CU, which we love because that takes our reach even broader.”

The year before, Colorado’s first four games only drew about three million total television viewers combined as the Buffaloes started 0-4 and then finished 1-11. After four games last year, CU had “only” 3,268 total media mentions for an estimated ad equivalency of $22.92 million.

Ticket sales: $20 million difference

Even if you don’t count earned media, Colorado earned enough from the Prime Effect in other areas to essentially pay for his contract over five years. Ticket sales is a big one.

Colorado sold out of all football tickets this year for the first time in history. It also sold out of season tickets for the first time since 1996. The season sellout is budgeted to bring in $31.98 million, according to the university.

Last year, the Buffs had one of the worst teams in America and sold just $12.68 million in tickets, not including the spring game in April, which sold out at $10 per ticket under Sanders and brought in about $340,000 after comps, according to the university.

That’s a difference of about $20 million.

Donations: $8 million difference

In August, the university’s athletic department announced that a record $28 million had been given to its fundraising arm, the Buff Club, in fiscal year 2023, which ended June 30. A year earlier, it was $20 million. The 2023 fiscal year only includes seven months with Sanders and doesn’t include donations made to the university outside of athletics.

University spokesman Steve Hurlbert said it was safe to assume that the increase in Buff Club donations is attributable to the “Prime Effect.”

Other categories: At least $3 million

In fiscal year 2022, Colorado’s revenues from merchandise royalties through the Collegiate Licensing Company were $1.345 million. A year later, through June 2023, that went up to $1.58 million, including just seven months under Sanders. For the current fiscal year, the budgeted revenue is $2 million, but it likely will be nearly $300,000 more than that, according to data provided by the university.

Dollar figures for other revenue categories weren’t available, though the university did provide percentage increases. For example, sales in the online team store have increased 2,544% since last September. Sales at the physical team store on campus have increased 564% since last September.

“Without a doubt, the University of Colorado likely has not had a moment like this in quite some time, if ever,” said Scranton, the PR expert.

It will get even bigger. There are eight regular-season games left, starting Saturday at home against USC. The game will be televised at noon ET on Fox.

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