Defending the Rutgers Athletics Brand

By Joe Favorito for

newjerseynewsroom.comThey have the only Division I football program in the tri-state area, and the only one in the Philadelphia-New York corridor to play in a conference affiliated with other schools in the region. They pulled in a naming rights deal to offset costs for a stadium in the toughest of economic conditions for such a transaction. They have a robust offering of athletic options year round, all scholarship based, that pull in student-athletes from around the world. Their most prominent sports for the casual sports fan in the area are led by coaches with integrity, fire and passion, and in a tumultuous time they have stayed above the fray for the most part in the dirty politics and dirty laundry that has plagued college athletics in 2011. They also have the poster boy for hope and unity, an effervescent former athlete now on the road to recovery who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated this past week.

Yet for all the positives, Rutgers athletics continues to be the punching bag for opponents who say that too much is spent, too much is promised and there is not enough ROI in a state where academics and student services are tumbling. Why?

First, a few observations. the current athletic administration did not inherit the best of situations.

Rutgers was struggling to fill seats and sponsorships, compete on a national level and represent the state and its alumni long before Tim Pernetti and staff took over. Their naming rights deal for the stadium expansion, their recent hires, and their larger embrace of the casual athletic fan in the area are all signs that things are moving forward. The tumultuous situation with the Big East, now close to settling in after an embarrassing fall, actually puts Rutgers more in a position of strength and leadership for the vision of the new conference than ever before, assuming the Big East stays as a BCS eligible conference. The much-publicized financial losses the University has pulled in to support athletics in recent years may also serve as a wakeup call for future spending and also provide the necessary infrastructure for success in the coming years.

The University has always suffered from a bit of an identity crisis nationally, because of its name more than its accomplishments or lack thereof. If the Scarlet Knights were “New Jersey State” of “The University of New Jersey” there probably would be a little easier sell to casual fans from coast to coast. There is no other state university in the country that has a signature Division I athletic program whose name is not the place where it resides.

New York and the SUNY system is different since its larger athletic programs are spread wide, from Stony Brook to Buffalo. Rutgers, with one concentrated campus and program, has always had a bit of a naming crisis in the casual atmosphere. The University location has always been a positive and a negative as well. Placed between the Philly and New York metroplex, Rutgers can draw media attention from both. However it also has to compete with both markets, neither of which has ever embraced big time college football. The opportunity is there, but it is daunting.

With all that in mind, and with budgets for brand marketing not as large as they once were, the University athletic department has brought in corporate dollars to offset costs, is finding ways to better promote all athletics through social media and grassroots programs, and is fully aware of the balance that must exist between academics and athletics. Could monies for the stadium and other programs have been better served going to the arts or academics? Hard to say at this point, and hindsight is easily 20/20.

Could the University overall do a better job of using its wide athletic media platform to promote its extensive academic success? Probably. Are there great stories away from the hardwood and the gridiron that involve Rutgers athletes and their business success? For sure, and those stories can probably better link the critics of athletic spending with the core that see the value in the large scale programs currently funded.

Success on the field and success in the classroom can not only exist together; they can thrive. When they thrive, and consensus is reached that the window athletics provides into the University of a whole, the brand of the University is successful. That success means higher admissions, more corporate dollars, more school pride, more funding for all programs across the board. That is a healthy system that works best.

Can Rutgers continue to solve the issues that exist by combining large scale athletic programs with academic success and represent a state that really needs a positive feel in both academics and athletics? Sure.

As the smoke clears from years of missed opportunities to brand and expand, Rutgers may be best positioned for such success in the Northeast. It has solid academics, solid coaching, strong leadership, world class facilities, and it continues to serve a marketplace that loves a comeback. Finding the casual fan to embrace the Scarlet Knights is not an easy task, but it is coming, and with that combo the better days for the Rutgers brand, as a representative both athletically and academically, should be on the horizon.

Joe Favorito has over 24 years of strategic communications/marketing, business development and public relations expertise in sports, entertainment, brand building, media training, television, athletic administration and business.