By Published: July 10, 2023

the Prime EffectThe “Prime Effect” has arrived in Boulder … but what, exactly, is it? 

Is it the fact that the Colorado Buffaloes — a football team that won one game last year — became the only team in the nation to have their spring game aired live on ESPN this year?

Is it the 600% increase in followers to CU football’s social media accounts since Deion Sanders, known as Coach Prime, was hired in December?

Is it the way Coach Prime merchandise initially sold out after each restock in CU gear shops around Colorado?

Perhaps it’s all of that and more — it’s even bigger than sales and stats.  The Prime Effect is also about Coach Prime’s “Midas Touch” — the way he seems to enhance situations and environments once he enters the picture. 

Deion Sanders spent three seasons at Jackson State University (JSU), where he put an ultra-positive jolt in the backs of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). He generated the equivalent of $185 million in advertising and exposure revenue for the JSU athletic department in less than a year on staff, according to an April 2021 article in USA Today. JSU’s football team went 27–6 — a complete turnaround from the continuous under .500 team records in the years before Coach Prime’s arrival — and on College GameDay 2022, ESPN entered Jackson, Mississippi, for the first time in history.

The Prime Effect transformed Jackson State, and Buffs are ready to see what effect it will have on Boulder.

The Prime Effect Is Unapologetically Black

“Coach Sanders’ impact as a father figure for students on campus and his players is amazing.”

2020 census data shows that Colorado has experienced growth in racial and ethnic diversity in the past 10 years, but CU Boulder remains predominantly white.

CU’s total enrollment is over 36,000 students. Roughly 66% of those students are white, 12% are Hispanic, 9% Asian American, 7% international, 1% Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, 1% American Indian/Alaska Native, 1% unknown and almost 3% are Black, or approximately 800 undergraduate students and 150 graduate students.

Already, Coach Prime is making an effort to support Black community members at CU, and in turn, they’re rooting hard for Coach Prime and the team to succeed.

Reiland Rabaka, founder and director of the Center for African & African American Studies (CAAAS) and a professor in the ethnic studies department, is already impressed by the man CU hired to lead its football team.

“Coach Sanders’ impact as a father figure for students on campus and his players is amazing,” Rabaka said. “The man truly cares about his community.”

On Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month, the CAAAS hosted its grand opening — and Deion Sanders was there. Feb. 1 was also National Signing Day, a pivotal day for high school senior athletes. It’s the day many athletes sign a national letter of intent, declaring where they intend to play Division 1 football. Coach Prime spent part of his day with future Buffs headed to the football team, and he also celebrated with Black Buffs on campus, creating and continuing a legacy of African Americans in Boulder. 

Prime Effect Illustration“He’s almost a sensei; that brother is a blessing for this university,” Rabaka said. “Most coaches don’t realize it’s not always about what you do on the field, but off the field, and Sanders showing up for us on this day of all days shows me the type of man he’s developing in that locker room.” 

The Prime Effect “Ain’t Hard to Find”

The 2023 CU spring game sold out with more than 47,000 in attendance (tickets cost $10). That’s more people for a single scrimmage than the past nine spring games combined, all of which were free — and completely shatters the record of 17,000 attendees in 2008.  

The spring game, which was broadcast on ESPN, hosted 260 members of the media. The school record for most media credentials at one game is 601, a record set in 1989 when Colorado beat Nebraska to head to the Orange Bowl. The university made around $200,000 net profit from the game, including $123,000 in merchandise revenue, and about $143,000 in concessions.

The buzz around this team is simply hard to ignore, and everyone even remotely involved is benefiting. It’s been 27 years since CU has sold out season tickets, and it’s the first time they sold out before August.

“The thing that I think I’ve noticed more than anything on campus is the excitement level,” said Patrick Ferrucci, CU Boulder associate professor of journalism. “Being here eight years, I think there was maybe one year where people kind of even really cared about the football team. I was at a university meeting where they were joking about how they used to give away tickets, and they were like, ‘Just know that that’s not going to be the case this year.’”

His first night in Boulder, Coach Prime said, “I’m coming,” which has remained a catchphrase. A few days later he quipped, “I’m not hard to find,” referencing his social media presence. Surrounded by his son, Deion Sanders Jr., and a team of content creators, he’s constantly posting footage from practice, his office and even local hangouts. 

This always-on, insider approach to CU Boulder football has catapulted his accounts to a whole new level: As of June 2023 he had 3.3 million followers on Instagram and 291,000 YouTube subscribers

Sanders has posted reels of team practices, reviews of Boulder restaurants and CU facility tours with Colorado legends like former NBA Final MVP Chauncey Billups (Soc ex’99) and Kordell Stewart (Comm ex’95; BA’16), high-profile fans like rapper Lil Wayne and even his mother.

“Sanders and his team, with the way that they use social media, do a great job, especially emotionally,” Ferrucci said. “In our program, we teach social media storytelling, and I think there’s a lot that our students could learn from the way that they use [it] to get their stories across in a way that resonates with a lot of students and alumni.”

Prime EffectBigger Than Football

“Sanders and his team, with the way that they use social media, do a great job, especially emotionally.”

Teaching associate professor Jamie Skerski taught the “Communication, Culture & Sport” course at CU, a campus favorite where students discuss the intersection of athletics, sexism, racism, culture and politics. Since 2020, when CU students joined nationwide racial inequity protests and Black Lives Matter demonstrations, she’s noticed a shift in students, she said. With Coach Prime’s arrival, classroom conversations are becoming increasingly nuanced, too.

“I feel a shift in the level of conversations about and around privilege in my classroom,” Skerski said. “That’s not to say that there are not structural problems at CU or in Boulder, because there certainly are, but students can recognize and talk about them with more sophistication. The arrival of Coach Prime comes at a time when many students can appreciate that the moment is here, and is bigger than football.”

Skerski believes white students at CU Boulder are starting to check themselves and their classmates when conversations about racial inequalities arise, especially relating to Coach Prime’s position on campus and the world.

“In terms of understanding larger cultures and racial inequities coinciding at the same time, I know at least my students are much more aware of their white privilege and have a stake in the way these conversations are happening inside and outside of the classroom,” she said. “They for sure see this Deion Sanders moment as an intersection of all of the things we teach in our course.”

And Coach Prime, who is unapologetically himself, is making an impact on the Boulder community in unexpected ways.

When he visited Village Coffee Shop as part of his food review tour, he gave them an “A-.” They could have had a higher grade, he said, but Coach Prime appeared jokingly appalled that the cafe, like many others in Boulder, did not serve grits, an African-American staple food dating back to the transatlantic slave trade. 

Since Coach Prime posted the video, there has been a surge in Boulder diners serving grits and other traditionally African-American fare. Two local restaurants even named items on the menu after Coach Prime. 

A simple gesture like a restaurant serving grits can help build a sense of community and belonging — creating unity among fans and the coaching staff. 

Coach Prime’s presence in Boulder and on social media is igniting conversations about important social issues. He may be here to coach football, but his impact is far greater. 

Once in a Lifetime

Regardless of the Buffaloes’ success on the field, wins are — hopefully — guaranteed. Everyone will find out when the Buffs kickoff against Texas Christian University on FOX’s Big Noon telecast. But the community and player development are worth more than any Pac-12 championship trophy.

This year, the Buffs are transforming their outlook and building a program that fits Sanders’ vision of a winning team — both on and off the field. And that is the Prime Effect.

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Illustrations by Timba Smits