CU Buffs look to restore image ‘damaged’ over last 10 years

When Mateo Martinez wears University of Colorado gear out in public, people laugh at him.

The 2005 CU graduate tries to defend the school by talking about the basketball teams’ recent successes, but it’s no use.

“Football is the straw that stirs the drink for people just casually paying attention,” he said. “It’s kind of an embarrassment.”

When people talk about CU athletics, they think of football, Martinez said. And when they talk about football, they use words like “laughing stock” and “punch line,” and those aren’t the kinds of words fans want to hear associated with their team of choice.

While improving the CU Athletic Department’s image relies partly on the football team winning games this season, many experts say the Boulder campus could be doing more to shape the public’s perception.

To start, new CU Athletic Director Rick George said he plans to mill around at tailgates before every home game this season to hear how fans feel about everything from the game-day experience to the team’s performance on the field.

“I want to visit with people and talk with people,” George said. “I want to visit with students and see what their experience is. I’m very comfortable making decisions, but I like to get input. I like to hear what people are saying. Having that input on how they feel about things is vitally important at all levels.”

George said he hopes to outline a strategic plan for the Athletic Department, which will include a marketing plan, by April 2014. After less than two weeks on the job, he said he couldn’t provide specific plans for improving Colorado’s image, but he knows he and the department’s marketing team will have to get “creative.”

Last year, CU spent around $1.1 million on marketing and promotions, which is comparable to fellow Pac-12 schools Arizona State and Washington. Leeds School of Business associate marketing professor Calvin Duncan said George will need to make the marketing budget stretch and implement some unconventional methods to rebuild the CU athletics’ brand after years of public relations mishaps.

“He’s got to work with what he’s got,” Duncan said. “Can you afford to have billboards up in major arteries of Denver and other obvious places? Can you buy signage at Denver International Airport, where literally hundreds of thousands of people pass by it and see it? Can you afford to put ads in major sports publications?

“I’m sure one of the things that the Athletic Department would like is to have the money to do those things.”

Staying on-message

One free option is making sure everyone and everything in the Athletic Department articulates the same agreed-upon message, said Los Angeles-based crisis and reputation management specialist Terry Fahn. Fahn has worked with the Dodgers, Redskins and the Fiesta Bowl, and confidentially with a high-profile university on a football-related issue.

Right now, CU has no clear, unified message looking ahead to distract fans from the past, he said.

“The most important point is if you don’t tell your story, someone will tell it for you,” Fahn said. “Everyone needs to speak from the same playbook, if you will. Is the messaging that we’re going to be in the Rose Bowl next year or build for long term success? CU would benefit from having a message and a goal for the school.”

Fans have heard some of that mixed messaging in the last few years, especially during leadership changes, Fahn said. Earlier this year, fans heard from CU’s higher-ups that former Athletic Director Mike Bohn resigned. Later, Bohn said he was forced out and blindsided by the decision, which made CU look disorganized, Fahn said.

Before that, ousted coach Jon Embree went outside the collective “playbook,” Fahn said, when he cried through a press conference and implied CU’s decision to fire him might have been racially motivated.

Many experts said the recruiting and the sex assault scandals in the early 2000s still haunt CU’s Athletic Department. Addressing some past public relations messes might help with the public’s perception of CU, Fahn said.

Despite Colorado’s national championship in 1990 and the beautiful views from Folsom Field, when fans today think about Colorado athletics, the negatives are outweighing the positives, said Duncan, the CU marketing professor.

“One of (the negatives) is the general perception that the Athletic Department currently is in a state of disarray without a clearly defined direction and a specific plan of action,” Duncan said.

‘Our brand is very strong’

Matt Biggers, CU athletics’ external affairs director and chief marketing officer, pointed to the success of the basketball, skiing and cross country teams as proof that, overall, Colorado athletics goes beyond football.

“Honestly, our brand is very strong,” Biggers said. “The CU brand nationally is very strong. It’s very easy for that to sometimes maybe get overshadowed because football is so prominent and gets a lot of the attention.”

Last year, a 1-11 football program brought in $28 million, almost seven times more than the $4.7 million brought in by the 21-12 men’s basketball team. Last year, CU athletics had a budget shortfall of $7.5 million, partially caused by a $3.3 million drop in ticket sales, mostly in football, according to campus officials. Average attendance for CU’s six home games in 2012 was 45,373, down 10 percent from 2011 and lower than it had been in any of the previous 23 seasons, according to campus officials.

Carrie Packard, a 1993 CU graduate who now lives in Denver, said she thinks it’s great that CU’s basketball teams and sports such as soccer, cross country and skiing are getting more recognition. But, she said, football is still king.

“You can’t ignore football,” said Packard, who’s still deciding whether to renew her football season tickets this year.

Overall, though, Packard said she’s optimistic about this season and about George as the CU Athletic Department’s new business-savvy leader.

“CU’s brand is so damaged,” she said. “It seems to have just been chaos for the last decade. I think (George) understands that, and he’ll be able to rebuild the brand and ideally rebuild athletics and not just football.”