CU Buffs’ Rick George optimistic about fall sports

Despite numerous challenges, Colorado athletic director hopeful about return of college sports

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Colorado athletic director Rick George said “every day I get more optimistic” about college sports being played this fall.

Nobody knows if college sports will be played in the fall, or what the season could look like because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the past 10 weeks, however, Colorado athletic director Rick George has spent countless hours in national, Pac-12 and staff meetings and he remains hopeful that the Buffaloes’ football, volleyball, soccer and cross country teams will compete this fall.

“Every day I get more optimistic,” George told BuffZone on Thursday. “What that looks like, it’s not totally clear yet, but I get more optimistic daily as I see maybe different sports coming back like the NHL and the NBA and Major League Baseball and those kind of things.

“I think another positive was the (CU chancellor Philip DiStefano’s) announcement a couple days ago that students are going to be coming back on campus. All those things, I think, are positive things that gives me optimism for the fall. My optimism is tempered until it becomes clear and we know exactly what we’re going to do and we’re not there yet.”

CU announced earlier this week a plan for students to return to campus in the fall. It was a  major step – but one of many to be taken – in allowing fall sports to be played in Boulder.

George serves on several national committees, including as the Pac-12 representative on the NCAA’s Division I Council, and has been a part of numerous discussions on a variety of topics over the last 10 weeks.

The Buffs’ athletic director said he’s been busier than ever during the pandemic.

“It’s almost three months now … 10 weeks since the COVID (shutdown) kind of started,  so it’s been a hectic ride, but an interesting one,” he said.

For many athletic departments around the country, the ride has been extremely bumpy. In some cases, it’s been devastating, as several schools have announced they are cutting sports programs. On Thursday, Brown University announced it is cutting 11 varsity teams and making them club teams. Earlier this week, Appalachian State announced it is cutting three men’s sports programs. Other non-Power 5 schools have done the same.

As CU and other schools try to navigate the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, they are seeking ways to tighten their budgets as they brace for significant financial losses.

George, however, has maintained that CU does not intend to cut any sports.

“Do I worry about it? Yes,” he said. “It’s not a big worry for me right now because that’s not in my plan right now. I don’t think that’s necessary to cut a sport for the long term. We’re really focused on this year. I don’t think that makes sense for us to (cut sports) and I’m not interested in that at this point.”

CU has previously announced that George and the head coaches will take pay cuts for the 2020-21 school year. CU athletics has also had to put some employees on furlough, although George said they have not gone through layoffs at this point.

“We’re like everybody else in that we’ve had to move in that direction and that doesn’t make everything easy,” he said.

At this point, the financial impact of the pandemic on CU athletics is not known, but much of that will depend on the fate of the football season. Ticket revenue is a major part of CU’s athletic budget and it is possible that if football is played, it will be done in empty or partially-filled stadiums.

Regardless, George acknowledged that the loss of revenue for the 2020-21 school year will be “significant.”

“There’s going to be a reduction in revenue, regardless of whether we play 12 games with fans, a portion of fans, or with no fans,” he said during a conference call with media Thursday. “We’re looking at all those scenarios. That’s why we’ve been making some decisions to lower our expenses, as well, so we can offset some of that.”

CU is looking at creative ways to generate revenue, however, by taking advantage of what could be higher TV ratings than usual.

“Take the NFL Draft as an example,” he said. “That was done differently than it’s ever been done, but the numbers and the ratings on the NFL Draft were significant. I think people are hungry for live sports and we will be creative on what we do inside of our stadium if we have a reduced number of fans or no fans. We will certainly put those in place to try to maximize revenue that we can get from television and (advertising) partners.”

Despite the unknowns of the next school year, CU continues working on a proposed budget for the 2021 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

“My focal point is a year from now,” he said. “My plan is that we’re going to be better a year from now than we are today. And while it’s going to be tough and it has been over the last 10 weeks, it’s going to continue to be that way through the fall and, and hopefully by this time next year, we get back to what I would call the new normal, where it’s a little more definitive on what it looks like.”