Expansion Project Vol I
Expansion Project Vol II
Like many of the large schools west of the Appalachians, Colorado State University (CSU) was created via the Morrill Act, which granted public land to states to create agricultural universities. Michigan State was the vision for this Act, created via the Michigan constitution, and Iowa State and Kansas State became the first two schools derived from this national land grant boon. Big 12 members Oklahoma State and West Virginia followed suit so, in that regard, the Rams are in good company within the conference.
Unlike those schools, however, Colorado State has largely remained in the shadow of the sole Power Five School and former Big 12 member, The University of Colorado, within the state. With the Buffalos moving to the Pac 12 in the last round of realignment, many have speculated that the Rams could easily replace them along the foothills. Let’s look at the numbers to see if that is the case.
With the exposure the University of Colorado received being in a Power Five conference for decades, that shadow they cast over CSU has reduced the amount of branding the Rams have built up over the years. This is reflected in Colorado State’s licensing, which ranks 83rd in the FBS or the lowest third. It is also the lowest licensing rank of any school that has or will be presented within the expansion project – nearly five times less than fellow expansion candidate, the University of Connecticut.
All is not bad news for the Rams however. With an enrollment of over 30,000, Colorado State would be fourth in the Big 12, behind Texas, Texas Tech, and Iowa State. Most of this is recent growth as they’ve added 5,000 total students since 2010. This gives them a base to start building their brand within the coming decades.
However, even with that favorable base, the lack of any sort of successful or historic brand, specifically when compared against other expansion candidates, hinders Colorado State’s value to the Big 12.
There was a time, not so long ago, when Colorado was one of the western anchors to the Big 12’s footprint. At that time Iowa State and Missouri formed the eastern borders. A lot has changed since then as the Big 12’s footprint now extends to another mountain range in the Eastern Time Zone.
There was a lot of feedback on the University of Houston’s expansion capsule via email and on our forums, that I was unfair to the Cougars due to their low ranking in the location score, since they are still close to a lot of Big 12 schools. I was rather clear in the original location article how everyone would be judged; distance to the geographic center of the Big 12 and distance to Morgantown, West Virginia. To ignore that the Big 12 is aiming east and needs new markets is naive at best. And, like most western schools, CSU takes a beating because of this.
At 838 miles away from the geographic center of the new Big 12, Colorado State is nearly exactly as far west of this point as West Virginia is east. And that doesn’t bode well for the rest of the score, because the Rams come in at over 1,500 miles away from Morgantown. To give that some perspective, UConn is closer in total mileage than CSU. Whether you want to accept it or not, this distance makes it difficult for the Big 12. And the Big 12 needs to get West Virginia off an island.
Typically this extra travel is balanced by a benefit of a market and Colorado State does have that. While Fort Collins is only around 150,000 people, it is sixty miles north of Denver, which is the 17th largest market in the nation with 1.5 million homes. Geographically, like the Salt Lake City DMA, the Denver market encompasses not only the bulk of Colorado and its 5.3 million residents, minus Grand Junction and Colorado Springs/Pueblo, but also extends into western Nebraska and southern Wyoming. This gives the Rams the potential to not only get exposure in high density Denver, but also spread out through the smaller mountain regions.
With a low amount of revenue from licensing and a fan base lacking in a lot of exposure over decades, Colorado State’s athletic revenue hasn’t swelled like its enrollment. Earning less than $40 million in revenue places the Rams last in the Big 12. Matter a fact they are so securely in last that the current 10th place team is nearly twice their revenue.
The story doesn’t get better from there. As mentioned in previous articles, the Big 12 schools generate their revenue without many subsidies. This means when revenues do increase they can be invested into the program, instead of used to pay down debt, e.g. stop using subsidies first.
Iowa State had one of the largest subsidies within the Big 12, and that only amounted to 1.15% of revenues. Colorado State’s subsidies amount to 53% of revenues. It would take the current per school payout from the Big 12’s media contract just to get Colorado State into the black. Like the University of Houston, that’s a major concern, which is evident in its ranking of 90th out of 123 FBS schools reviewed and the only schools below them reside in conferences like the MAC and CUSA.
That being said, there is definitely room for improvement with attendance to make up the gap, as the Rams currently rank 86th in this category. Football, the major factor of expansion, should get a boost with a beautiful new stadium in the pipeline for 2017. Though, this new stadium will only house 36,000 seats with standing room only attendance swelling to 41,000. That is still 10th place in the Big 12, behind TCU and Baylor, who have half the students.
Currently they rank 83rd in the FBS is football attendance with just over 25,000 fans per game. And, even with a surging basketball support behind the feisty Larry Eustachy, the Rams rank 91st in the FBS in men’s basketball attendance.
While there is a lot of room for improvement, Colorado State’s financial health and attendance figures place them near the bottom of the AAC and not even in the ball park of the Big 12’s scores. It would likely be extremely difficult for the Rams to compete consistently against current Big 12 members.
As mentioned, Colorado State is building a brand new football stadium indicating the administration and community is willing to invest in the Ram’s facilities to increase competitiveness. Though, historically they have won just 47% of their games and 50% of their post season. Granted there are Big 12 schools with a bad history in football as well, but those histories are also littered with losses against Oklahoma, Texas, and Nebraska, instead of non-Power Five Schools.
Academically, the Rams have a lot of positives. While still a land grant school, which are typically chartered to educate as many state residents as possible, it does have a sizable amount of research expenditures. Currently it comes in just below Iowa State and just above Kansas in the R&D rankings, which is a solid company of peers.
Another benefit of Colorado State is its location in the burgeoning foothills north of Denver. Since 2005 Colorado has grown by nearly a million people, making it one of the fastest growing areas of the country. This provides the Rams an opportunity to grow over the next several decades as that population begins to enroll people in college.
Much of the growth in the area is from companies headquartered elsewhere building facilities up and down the foothills of the Rockies. However there are a few major Colorado companies, like Arrow, who is located in Englewood, about 80 miles south of Fort Collins. Currently, most of the corporate investment within the university has come through research partnerships, not athletic sponsorships.
After taking into consideration all the positives and negatives discussed, we start to get a clear picture of the value Colorado State brings the Big 12.
Its only real strengths to offer the Big 12 currently is its location at the fringe of the Denver Metro Area and being a strong research facility. Its scores rank it near the bottom third within the FBS for every category and, due to that, its ranks 89th over all.
Even if you don’t think location matters and I remove that category, Colorado State is still in the lower half of the FBS. It likely has a lot of potential to grow into a power within Colorado over the next 10 to 20 years, especially if the state continues to grow, but it isn’t there yet. Matter a fact it isn’t even close.
I’ve received a lot of comments that it could easily replace the University of Colorado within the state and I’m not sure I agree. Here is how the two schools compare across the major categories after removing location:
Even with the University of Colorado struggling over the past decade and having some financial issues, it clearly out ranks Colorado State in every category by a sizable margin. Joining the Big 12 won’t automatically make Colorado State match these numbers and, even if they could, look how far below Colorado is from the Power Five average. Both schools would need to improve significantly to even get to the middle of the Big 12 averages.
In the end, Colorado State has potential, but likely needs a lot more time to develop along that path before joining a Power Five conference.
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