Sports biz: CSU’s lesson in football 101

Like all artist renditions of buildings-to-be, a drawing of the 42,000-seat football stadium envisioned for Colorado State University is irresistibly grand: a picturesque Saturday, the sky drenched in sunlight, fans strolling toward a stadium nestled into the south end of the campus, stately mountains etched across the background. As a CSU alum, it gets my inner Ram all woozy.

The picture-within-the-picture is muddied, though, by a dreary economic storyline:

• Colorado has gotten into the habit of dealing with state budget pressures by adopting an inventive approach to higher-education funding, which is to just let Reagan be Reagan. True, there is no legitimate link between that Republican cliché and state education policy, but conservatives seem to really like the expression, so I thought I’d try it out. It’s neat to type, and it nicely obfuscates the fact that our state’s leaders like to espouse the virtue of an educated workforce while denying financial support for it.

• Because Colorado ranks poorly among states in per-student funding for higher ed, we leave huge revenue chasms for school administrators to fill. There aren’t many solutions out there, though. Bake sales still can’t overcome the whole freshness stigma (who can forget the University of Miami croissant scandal of 2007?) and it’s increasingly difficult for schools to sneak that $9,500 per semester “student activities fee” past parents.

• That leaves one choice: Convince out-of-state kids that attending college in Colorado is a Special Experience. This is what I like to think of as the Lawrence Kimble strategy. Lawrence was (and is) a good friend from Minnesota who fell in love with Colorado during a family vacation. He and I met at CSU, where we both enrolled in the journalism program. We had a nearly identical class schedule, ate the same meals at our residence hall and used infrastructure resources (paper towels in restrooms, air conditioning at the library, the on-campus Frisbee golf course) with what I suspect were similar patterns. His tuition, though, was way higher than mine, because his Experience, as an Out of State Student, was Extra Special, while mine was merely Special, but in an in-state sort of way.

• The answer: football. A prominent football program, advocates say, will keep CSU’s recruitment brochure at the top of the pile every spring as high-school students consider where to apply. This is actually the only part of the football-as-savior argument that makes sense (which is why I wish boosters were more open about it). If a multi-million dollar annual football budget is really just a stand-in for a national marketing investment, it might be an easier sell to non-believers. (Although I suppose you could just spend $30 million a year on marketing and ditch the team entirely.)

And so it is that my alma mater is weeks away from notifying the world about whether it intends to go about demolishing Hughes Stadium, site of many a memorable tailgate party in the day, and building a $246 million successor facility. We can tamp down the drama a bit here – spoiler alert – by letting you know in advance the decision will be “yes,” because it is always “yes.” And because when they enlist a former starting quarterback as the athletic director and make a point about not using taxpayer funds, you sort of know in advance where the plot is going.

How CSU will tackle the job of filling a 42,000-seat football stadium by drawing on an immediate Fort Collins populace of 146,000 will present a fascinating case study in marketing. Maybe the strategy is to fly in people from Chicago. Or Nova Scotia. Or build a dedicated lane on I-25 for Denver alums. Doesn’t matter. For now, the takeaway from Fort Collins is the reinforcement of an old story line. Football continues to be viewed as economic salvation for higher education. Until CSU or any prominent university proves it’s possible to improve academic recruitment with a small-time football program, or with no football at all, that theme will endure.