Colorado athletic director Rick George, right, said the department is "proud" of balancing the budget for the third straight year.
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Colorado athletic director Rick George, right, said the department is “proud” of balancing the budget for the third straight year.

When he was hired as Colorado’s athletic director four years ago, Rick George made it a priority to balance the department’s budget.

Thanks in large part to a turnaround season in football, the Buffaloes have done it for a third consecutive year. CU recently wrapped up the final numbers for the 2017 fiscal year, and once again finished in the black.

“That’s something that we’re proud of because that was a commitment we had made four years ago,” George said. “That’s been important and that was a priority. That was in our strategic plan (for 2014-17).”

CU’s revenue for the 2016-17 fiscal year was $86,537,487, with expenses at $86,537,295. Both numbers were nearly $6 million higher than what the Buffs budgeted.

“All in all, it was really as expected, so that’s a credit to a lot of the staff maintaining the strategic plan of a balanced budget,” said Cory Hilliard, CU’s chief financial officer and associate athletic director over business operations.

The revenue increases were largely attributed to the football team having a dramatic improvement in 2016. The Buffs ended a string of 10 consecutive losing seasons by going 10-4, winning the Pac-12 South division and earning a trip to the Alamo Bowl.

CU generated more than $11.1 million in football ticket revenue last year, nearly $1.7 million over what was budgeted. Playing in the Alamo Bowl added roughly $1.8 million to CU’s revenue.

In addition, the Buffs received nearly $30.4 million in conference distribution, about $2.4 million more than budgeted. Washington reaching the College Football Playoff provided $6 million to the Pac-12 ($500,000 per school).

Pac-12 enterprises were more profitable than expected, as well, and Pac-12 teams did very well in selling tickets to their bowl games.

“If you get a team that sells their ticket allotment (for a bowl game) and then some, that swings into a positive that ultimately we realize benefits from,” Hilliard said. “The conference and the Alamo Bowl were very happy with us, for example, with our fan involvement and attendance down in San Antonio. That was a positive to the conference distribution.”

Outside events also proved highly profitable for the Buffs. They budgeted for a profit of about $753,000 in that category, but wound up making more than $2.5 million.

That increase is mainly from Dead & Company summer concerts in 2016 and 2017 both falling within the fiscal year, whereas normally only one set of shows would have been in the fiscal year. CU has had discussions about hosting more concerts at Folsom Field, but has not committed to doing so.

CU also continues to do very well in renting facilities for weddings, bat mitzvahs, corporate events, etc. In all, CU hosted about 240 events during the last fiscal year.

While football and outside events produced more revenue, they also added expenses. The football team made more than expected, but expenses were nearly $3 million more and budgeted, with a big chunk of that coming from the new contract extension awarded to head coach Mike MacIntyre.

Another large addition to CU’s expenses were the costs associated with the outside investigation into how the school handled domestic abuse accusations against former assistant football coach Joe Tumpkin. That investigation cost the athletic department just over $1 million.

In fiscal year 2017, CU also began debt service payments on the $156 million facilities upgrades completed in early 2016. The debt service on that project was roughly $9.9 million last year. CU will be making payments on that project through the 2046 fiscal year.

CU actually paid $14.9 million in debt service last year, with about $5 million of that coming from previous projects, such as upgrades to the east club level. The Buffs are budgeted for about $14.9 million in debt service payments again this next year.

The better than expected numbers in football, outside events and conference distribution helped CU in making that debt service payment.

The department had budgeted to use $9.3 million from its SEI (sustainable excellence initiative) funds for the debt service. Because of increased revenue, however, only $4.8 million was used. That will allow CU to keep more money in reserve for future years.

For the 2017-18 fiscal year, CU’s athletic budget has increased to nearly $87.8 million, with budgeted increases for ticket sales in football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball and structured growth in conference distribution.

Once again, the success of the football team will play a role in achieving that financial success. So far, so good, as the Buffs are 3-1 on the field with attendance trending higher than a year ago.

“We had a balanced budget (for 2017) … and we’re excited about that,” Hilliard said. “We submitted a balanced budget for 2018, and right now are looking to keep that in check. The success at the start of the football season has been a positive in that regards.”

Contact staff writer Brian Howell at or