The University of Colorado has become a social media powerhouse, something that may pay off in recruiting
A-list celebrities including Snoop Dogg, DJ Khaled and Rick Ross, along with sports legends such as Tom Brady, post about Colorado football. The sidelines have been packed with stars, and the team’s social media accounts continue to skyrocket, despite the string of losses.
“Colorado has become mainstream in a way that college football often isn’t,” said Rodger Sherman, a college football journalist and the creator of the online video series Road Rodge, which charts the college football season. “It’s been a frenzy: We’ve gotten years worth of feuds and quotes and content just in the first months. Every week there’s a new moment that blows up online … We haven’t seen players become this legitimately famous in college football.”
Colorado’s virality is no accident, but the result of a careful strategy. Cameras are on hand to document nearly every moment of the season: the personal, behind-the-scenes footage from inside the locker room, the highlights from the game leading up to a potential big win or tough loss, the interaction of teammates on the bus before and after a game. Even the players’ practice jerseys are emblazoned with their Instagram handles rather than their last names.
All of this has led to real money in terms of ticket sales for the university and brand endorsements for the team’s top players, whose followings continue to explode. Shedeur Sanders, the team’s quarterback, has seen his Instagram following nearly double to 2 million since the season began, and Travis Hunter, a cornerback and wide receiver, has gone from 569,000 to over 1.1 million followers on the app. The team’s channels also continue to grow, going from a total following of 267,000 to over 2.3 million in the past year.
“Colorado football has been the biggest thing in sports,” said Tom Weingarten, chief growth officer of Overtime, a sports media company. “Professional, college, high school, whatever, there hasn’t been anything bigger on social media.”
Deion Sanders’s son, Deion Sanders Jr., commands a team of YouTubers and videographers who have unprecedented access to the players, including his two younger brothers, quarterback Shedeur and Shilo, a safety.
The goal is to transform the players into influencers in their own right and build them into stars online.
“We record content, set up their YouTube channels and keep it rolling so they don’t have to do outside work,” Sanders Jr. said. “They don’t have to film stuff themselves, all they have to do is show up for workouts, prepare for the game and win, and we’ll handle everything else.”
Sanders Jr.’s team is not employed by the school. They have a deal worked out with Coach Sanders himself, in his first season with the Buffaloes. But they partner closely with Colorado’s in-house social media team.
“We always joke around and say they’re like the radio edit and I’m the album version,” Sanders Jr. said of the Colorado in-house social media staff. “They have specific rules they have to abide by. I have to abide by some rules, but we can have a little more flavor in there and raw reality. We don’t have to dress it up as much. My only rule is don’t make the university look bad, and don’t make Coach Prime look bad.”
John Snelson, the university’s director of creative services, oversees the in-house content team, which consists of four full-time creative workers who cover analytics, photos, videos and graphics for the internet, along with 11 student employees who do everything from capturing content to editing photos and videos for TikTok, Instagram and X, formerly Twitter.
Snelson said that the key to virality is real-time content and hitting internet users from every angle on every platform. “There’s definitely no one that has the amount of content that we have,” he said of other college football teams. “If you’re a fan, you’ll see maybe a video my team made on Instagram. But then you’ll also see interesting interactions between Coach Prime and something he did on campus that day on his sons’ social media channels, then you’ll see a player interview on another player’s channel. There’s just a ton going on.”
Even Coach Sanders’s nickname, “Coach Prime” (based on his high school nickname, Prime Time), speaks to his ability to generate attention. “The Colorado coach has long had cameras trailing him, following his every move,” Sporting News reported. “There’s a reason why he’s called Coach Prime.”
During games, Snelson has students stationed surrounding the field to capture social media content from every angle, making sure not a single play is missed. “Everything you see coming out on the football page is original content from our staff,” he said.
“Say there’s 11 students, and probably six of them are doing video, two are doing photo, and the others are running and editing during the game. We’ll put out live edits of our own footage mid-game, and then we’ll have someone in the media room editing too. Say we score a big touchdown, and one of our cameras gets a great shot of it, we’ll run that card to the media room, edit it, and then we’ll post it.”
Colorado football content performs so well online that other sports content creators have used the team to grow their own channels. Moments after big plays, users on X, for example, will rip videos of the moment and share them to their own channels to capture the inevitable views. Weingarten said that CU football has been a boon for Overtime.
“[Colorado football] has definitely helped us grow our channels,” he said. “The clips always do extremely well, and that’s why we’re so focused on it. The more views we get, the more shares we get, the more that we grow. … Then you have places like ESPN and Barstool who aren’t going to the games, but still have these massive sports audiences, and when they’re posting highlights or behind-the-scenes clips that they’re seeing on Twitter or elsewhere, it generates this virality.”
The virality has paid off for the school. In September, tickets to University of Colorado football games became college football’s most expensive, with prices over $500. According to data by TicketIQ, Colorado ticket prices have risen 327 percent since the beginning of last season’s ticket sales. In early September, a spokesperson for Colorado’s ticket office told Front Office Sports that the school sold more than $400,000 in tickets after the team’s first game. By late September, Colorado had sold out the entire 2023 home season for the first time in the program’s history.
The string of losses has softened ticket prices in the secondary market, but games continue to sell out. Colorado’s game last week against Arizona was fully sold out, with tickets priced as high as $933 on the secondary market. In 2022, when the team went 1-11, the average ticket cost $73. This week’s game is an away game, so tickets are more affordable, but some still cost more than $330.
The online hype has also meant potential big bucks for the team’s star players, who can take advantage of 2021 changes to NCAA policies allowing college athletes to profit from their own name, image and likeness (NIL) for the first time.
“[Colorado’s online virality] is making these college players legitimately extremely famous and into household names,” Sherman said. “And they’re allowing them to take advantage of the NIL opportunities in a way other schools might not. The ability to boost players up like this is a huge advantage, and it’s one of the reasons Deion has been able to turn things around so quickly and get such high-caliber players into the program.”
In September, Business of College Sports declared that Sanders has “built an NIL powerhouse at Colorado.” Two months later, that is still true.
Eight Colorado players are on target to rake in over six figures worth of NIL deals, according to college sports hub On3. Shedeur Sanders is projected to have NIL deals totaling at least $4.8 million, and Hunter is estimated to have deals worth $1.8 million, making them two of the most monetizable college athletes playing today.
On top of that, some of Colorado’s players offer their own merchandise lines and monetize their social media platforms through live-streaming gifts and tips. Hunter has over 24,000 followers on Twitch, where he discusses his life and key games.
Snelson’s team feeds the Colorado fame machine by boosting the players and feeding them content to post. The school uses an app called “Influencer,” which the players have installed on their phones.
“Every time we take pictures of them, it’s distributed to them because they’re tagged, so they can post the content as well,” Snelson said. “Then, if we’re making a video about Shedeur, for instance, we do a collab post with them so the content is on their page as well as ours. We’re putting out all this content for our pages, but also as much as possible we get our content to their pages as well.”
Colorado’s content-first strategy has drawn critics. Before the school’s big game against the University of Oregon in September (which Colorado lost, 42-6), Oregon Coach Dan Lanning said of the team: “They’re fighting for clicks, we’re fighting for wins. There’s a difference. This game won’t be played in Hollywood, it’s going to be played on the grass.”
Sherman said it doesn’t matter that the team itself isn’t winning much. He noted that the Dallas Cowboys built an impressive brand and became one the most valuable sports franchises in the world, even though they haven’t won a Super Bowl since 1996. He also said that college football is different from pro football because of the constant turnover of players. Generate enough hype, make it clear that you can transform your star players into mega influencers who can earn millions on NIL deals, and the top recruits will come.
“Clicks and wins are more correlated than many people want to believe,” he said.