Colorado football fans refusing to support their team this season by not coming to games already have caused another budget shortfall for the athletic department, athletic director Rick George said Wednesday.
George said the department has budgeted for a $5.6 million shortfall, but because the fiscal year doesn't end until June 30, there is still time to mitigate the damage and he can't say for sure what the actual shortfall will be.
Needless to say, several crowds of fewer than 40,000 in paid attendance this fall at Folsom Field are compounding the athletic department's budget challenges at a time when it is also desperately trying to raise money to add new facilities to help make the football product more competitive.
The department is already more than $21 million in debt to the university because of loans that helped pay for the costs of switching conferences and coaching buyouts. With a stadium that seats 53,613, selling only 36,000 seats for games causes big problems.
"That's a lot of revenue left on the table," George said.
George has been on the job for nearly 90 days and spent time with the Daily Camera on Wednesday morning, just before meeting with all of his head coaches, discussing the progress he has made, changes he has instituted and the short- and long-term future of the department.
The last time CU reported attendance figures of less than 40,000 at football games prior to this season was back in 1988. George said CU's paid attendance numbers this season are actually slightly improved from last season, but they are still well below what the department budgeted for in the summer, and that has created the shortfall.
CU reports actual, and not paid, attendance on game days, which has left an erroneous impression in recent years that the program was attracting more paying customers.
Fans who responded to questions from the Camera on Twitter were mixed in their view of attendance this season. Most blamed a lacking student section for an empty-feeling stadium on game days.
Lane Karczewski, who lives in San Francisco, avidly watches the Buffs on television and notices the bare student section.
"As long as we're growing in competitiveness, which I think we are, I will always tune in," he tweeted. "The crowds are pathetic, though. Students need to realize they can actually sway the outcome of a game."
Fellow CU fan Dan Andrews added, "Attendance other than students has been decent. Compared to last year, games have been extremely fun. I miss the old days though."
The Camera also asked CU fans if the performance of the football team has affected their level of support.
"If you'd asked me last year, the answer might have been yes. This year, the team fights and is improving. Can't fault that!" Anna Gerstle tweeted.
The Buffs are 3-5 overall and 0-5 in the Pac-12 Conference under first-year coach Mike MacIntyre. The scores of games against Pac-12 foes have remained lopsided in the opposition's favor, despite small signs of improvement from the Buffs.
But a new coach and baby steps of improvement haven't been enough to overcome fans' frustrations after seven previous losing seasons.
"I would say for the last eight years there has not been a lot of reason to cheer for CU football," George said when asked about dwindling fan support. "I get some of the apathy that they have. What's concerning to me, that I have an issue with, is we've had a coach who has come in who is of great character who is doing, I think, some terrific things, and it's not translating to additional support from people in the local community."
George said he hired former Buff wide receiver Lance Carl to help tackle the problem by creating new and enhancing current relationships in the community. He said he also expects Carl to bring in new revenue sources using CU's facilities to attract events such as concerts, soccer matches and any other creative, revenue-producing ideas.
He said Folsom Field would be a great place to host a New Year's Day NHL game, similar to those that have taken place in venues such as Wrigley Field in Chicago, Fenway Park in Boston and Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
George has restructured the senior management team of the athletic department with Ceal Barry overseeing all internal aspects of the day-to-day operations and Jim Senter overseeing all of the external operations such as fundraising and marketing.