Coach Prime “pays for himself” at CU, despite $29.5-million, 5-year contract

BOULDER — In less than nine months on the job, Deion Sanders already has CU back among college football’s top 25.

The top 25 in merchandising, at any rate.

According to, the Buffs’ e-commerce partner, sales of CU merch as of last month made it the second-highest among, shall we say, “current” members of the Pac-12 and “top 20” among all NCAA schools.

Moreover, CU sales via the site were up in late July by more than 100% compared to the same period in July 2022.

So when insiders such as athletic director Rick George and independent sports business consultants concur that Coach Prime’s five-year, $29.5 million contract will make a return on the Buffs’ initial investment, the explosion of CU alums — and new fans — walking around in “Prime 21” merchandise offers a pretty good signpost as to why.

“I think since Coach (Prime) has come aboard to the campus, a lot of positive things have happened,” CU chancellor Phil DiStefano told The Post last month.

“Especially with (football) selling season tickets, just being on Fox (for its noon ET national kickoffs) with TCU and with Nebraska … everything is moving in the right direction as far as revenue coming into athletics, whether it’s merchandise or ticket sales. (And) with (Name-Image-Likeness), going through the collective, having Coach Sanders here has been a transformation in my mind for CU athletics. And everything that I see is on the upswing — including donations, including money going to the collective, season tickets and so on.”

“A major economic engine”

Why was CU willing to turn its football program over to an NFL legend who’d never coached at the Power 5 level before? In a word, math. And one equation in particular:

The Front Porch Effect + The Prime Effect = Profit

The “Front Porch” concept is the idea that football is the most influential, forward-facing public-relations arm of not just the athletic department, but the university as a whole. Combine that with adding Sanders as the new face of Buffs athletics, and suddenly the sight of a rampaging Ralphie in black and gold has zoomed from a quaint, regional image of a 1-11 football program to one of the hottest brands in American sports.

“(CU) is a major economic engine for the city and contributes to the local, state and regional economies in a number of ways. Although it is a little early to know, we hope the hiring of Deion Sanders as head coach of the university’s football program will have a positive impact on Boulder’s economy,” Jennifer Pinsonneault, Boulder’s community vitality senior program manager, said via an e-mailed statement.

On campus, at least, those impacts are being felt before Sanders has coached a single game.

Per CU data, athletic department royalty revenue for the 2022-23 fiscal year that ended July 1 was at $1.99 million. University officials told The Post that 29% of that stemmed from Coach Prime/Buffs “co-branded” merchandise, which comes out to roughly $580,300 over approximately seven months of sales.

Buffs administrators said that 12% of revenue from the co-branded merch goes to Sanders, while 12% goes to the university.

Meanwhile, football season tickets sold out at a record pace. As of Aug. 2, the Buffs had sold 22,457 season tickets and 11,600 available student sports passes. The latter are expected to sell out once the remaining passes are made available Aug. 15.

Individual football tickets are available, though — for now. As of this past Wednesday, the Nebraska and Stanford games were completely sold out, CU officials said, while only 3,500 tickets each remained for home games with CSU (Sept. 16) and USC (Sept. 30).

CU declined to release specific data on NIL metrics compared to 2021 and ’22. But, according to estimates of individual student NIL “value” by the web site, CU is now home to the sixth- and ninth-ranked potential earners in the country in defensive back/wideout Travis Hunter (No. 6, at an estimated $1.5 million) and quarterback Shedeur Sanders (No. 9, at $1.3 million), the son of CU’s new coach.

Hunter, a sophomore transfer from Jackson State, where he played for the elder Sanders, reportedly came to Boulder with five NIL deals already. Since then, per On3, he’s added Phil Long Ford, WaterLand CO, NXTRND, KastKing and Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits to his portfolio.

The younger Sanders transferred to CU having previously signed up with Beats by Dre, Tom Brady’s “BRADY” apparel brand, Gatorade, PLB Sports, Actively Black, Mercedes-Benz and Under Armour while adding Oikos this past February. On July 24, the Buffs quarterback presented $45,000 worth of uniforms and equipment to the N.E.D. Falcons Youth Organization at Fred Thomas Park on behalf of Gatorade.

“I feel like it’s very important (to give back). I feel like I’m excited that we picked this program, we picked the Falcons,” the younger Sanders told The Post after his presentation. “My dad had his own youth program when we was younger, and there’s a lot that it took for him to run it.”

 “Breaks our prediction models”

Coach Prime isn’t just changing previous university business models, analysts say.

He’s systematically demolishing them.

“He’s such a crazy variable,” Ned Caron, Gray Associates vice president of marketing, said of Sanders and CU, “that it breaks our prediction models.”

Caron and his peers at Gray assemble detailed data analysis via software and services for higher-ed clients such as DU.

In a report provided to The Post by managing analyst Andy Dunn, Gray lead developer Vlad Landaverde and Caron, the firm found Google search interest in CU is up 27% over the first six months of 2023 compared to the first half-year of ’22. Meanwhile, searches for “Jackson State” have dropped 34%, year over year, during that same period. (Point of comparison: USC is up just 9% since January and Texas is down 4%, per Gray’s tracking.)

What’s more interesting is where those spikes have happened regionally — a heat map that should excite CU football fans and may also, in a small way, help rationalize the university’s decision to stop being the eastern-most program in the Pac-12 and become a western outpost of the new-look Big 12.

Of the 12 states that have seen the highest jumps in CU-related searches since January, per Gray, seven are located in the south and southeast regions where Sanders and the Buffs want to recruit players and have their games seen on television: 1. Mississippi (90% increase); 2. Alabama (plus-67%); 4. West Virginia (plus-49%); 6. Virginia (plus-49%); 7. North Carolina (plus-46%); 8. Georgia (plus-45%); 12 Texas (plus-40%).

Caron added that the CU search spikes are similar to what Gray has tracked from “Cinderella” programs that advance in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, such as Loyola (Chicago) or Saint Peter’s, “when some small school makes the Sweet 16 and they’ve never even been searched. And all of a sudden they can have giant chunks that last one month.”

CU’s chunks, on the other hand, have largely stuck.

“The (Buffs) searches are up so high — every single state in the union is up,” Landaverde said. “The only other correlation I’ve ever seen is a Presidential election in which somebody wins all 50 states.”

“He pays for himself”

One spillover business effect of that increased interest for the university? Enrollment.

Jackson State, where Sanders coached from 2020-22, saw a reported 27% increase in freshman enrollment after Coach Prime joined the university. Landaverde said that while leaving the Pac-12 could affect a chunk of CU’s California-based alumni, Coach Prime could well expand future applications to the school from the east, south and southeast. Out-of-state tuition charges at CU for 2022-23 were roughly $41,000-$45,000 a year per enrollee.

“Obviously (Sanders affects) the business of football,” Caron continued. “But indirectly, if you think about Jackson State getting a double-digit increase in enrollment, the tuition money gain that they got from those kids is greater than the (football) ticket, right?

“If you think about it, each kid is tens of thousands of dollars — so within that realm of business and football, right there, is that domino effect, that is an institutional revenue bump … the ‘front porch’ effect.”

“He pays for himself. That’s based on not just the TV rights and NIL deals and tickets and vendors, but the increased enrollment is what everybody (at CU) gets, because that’s direct revenue from the students. He’s going to put (backsides) in seats in physical therapy classes.”

With one swing, the Buffs went from Pac-12 doormats to filling seats, selling shirts and walking tall in the Big 12.

And that old front porch along Colorado Avenue? It almost never looked better. Or busier.

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