It’s been four years since Rutgers Athletics joined the Big Ten Conference. For all the TV coverage and free branding every time an Aaron Judge home run soars toward the Rutgers-Big Ten sign in Yankee Stadium, the Scarlet Knights are still down in the standings, while their debts are climbing. Has the university’s investment been worth it? Keith Sargeant covers Rutgers Athletics for NJ Advance Media. He sat down with Correspondent Leah Mishkin.
Mishkin: We’re talking Rutgers Athletics and they just celebrated their four year anniversary in the Big Ten. How has it been for them, having this membership?
Sargeant: I think in some ways it was like a lottery ticket. They hit the lottery in a lot of ways, because you have to remember that five years ago, they were almost in purgatory where their future, as far as conference affiliation, was an unknown. They were watching other schools that were, you know, going to the ACC. Rutgers wanted to go to the ACC at the time, and it just didn’t happen. Without going to the Big Ten, from a financial perspective, who knows what would have happened. It’s no secret that they’re heavily subsidized already. At least with the Big Ten, their financial future is secure. From a competitive standpoint, you know, everyone knew that it was going to be an uphill sled — that they’ve struggled in the previous conference in the Big East and the American Athletic Conference. Everyone knew from a competitive standpoint that it was going to be a challenge. I think maybe, if you give any of the athletic department officials and coaches some truth serum, they would admit that it might be an even bigger challenge than they really originally feared.
Mishkin: And the statistics show that.
Sargeant: It does, it does. You know, they’ve won, across the board, about 22 percent of their games across the board in conference play over the last four years. When you’re not even winning a quarter of your conference games, it kind of shows you how much of a challenge it’s been.
Mishkin: When you talk about the benefits of being in the Big Ten, is it really because it puts you on a different level — a national level — and you’re televised and you can make money off of that?
Sargeant: Without question. It’s the best conference in the country in terms of prestige and tradition. There’s a network — the Big Ten Network — that airs, if not on their TV, but certainly on their website, pretty much all their games. From a branding standpoint, it’s immeasurable what the Big Ten has meant. We reported it back in July, but enrollment’s been up. Just from a branding standpoint, you know, you see Big Ten signs all over the place. From a school spirit standpoint, people are enthused from it. But from a competitive standpoint, you still have that challenge of when are they going to win more games.
Mishkin: And I know they’re trying to get new recruits and they are pumping a lot of money into the athletic department — new facilities, new coaches — but they’re still at a deficit.
Sargeant: They are. You know, and everyone knew that. There wasn’t what they would call an on ramp to get into the Big Ten, to try and get their athletic department a little bit more secure. That meant raising coaching salaries. That meant making all their programs fully-funded from a scholarship standpoint. Whereas, five years ago, maybe women’s golf or tennis, they weren’t fully funded, so now they all are. That costs money. You know, scholarships always go up, that’s indicative with tuition, which has constantly gone up. So that is all part of it. That being said, there was a 60-year window where they’re not getting fully funded from the Big Ten. They will starting in 2021, so between now and then it’s going to be a challenge from a financial standpoint.
Mishkin: Do you think they can catch up, looking ahead, with the revenue they’re supposed to get in?
Sargeant: Yeah. It can be, if you want to say in 10 years. I asked [Rutgers Athletic Director] Pat Hobbs the same question — in 10 years will Rutgers be, if not financially neutral, will the subsidies go away? He’s of the opinion that they will be. I’m a little skeptical. If you look at, again, tuition is always going to go up. And then, you know, facilities — that’s a big part of what they’re doing now. A lot of it is that they’re trying to get private financing with boosters and donors. But, still, they’re going to have to depend on some sort of public financing in that they already are. So, I’m a little bit more skeptical that in 10 years they’re going to be financially neutral. But, within maybe 20 years I think you could see a day where Rutgers is not just financial neutral, but actually making money off their football program and their athletic teams.
Mishkin: Do you think it’s tough having this cloud — I know you wrote an article on this as well — of the golden parachute payout? Can you talk a little bit to that for people who don’t know what that is?
Sargeant: Well, yeah, I mean, Julie Hermann and a lot of their other officials — dating back the last five, six, seven years — football coach Kyle Flood, even Mike Rice, which was heavily publicized. He got a payout. That was a little bit of a tougher situation because he had already been disciplined four months prior — suspended and fined. It would have been almost like double jeopardy to fire him for cause, so they had to pay him out. But, almost everyone who, any of the big coaches or the athletic officials who have walked out the door have walked away with something. The difference with Julie Hermann is she was entitled to $1.16 million if they fire her without cause. Which, they did.
Mishkin: And she got more than that.
Sargeant: On top of that, they gave her retention pay, which she would have to be the AD for five years. She wasn’t — she was only there for two and a half. And, they gave her all her bonus money, which added up to about $500,000. That was the part that has a lot of people a little bit up in arms.
Mishkin: So it makes it a little difficult to raise financing, but Big Ten is definitely a positive.
Sargeant: Yeah, certainly. And again, what they would argue is the money that they are going after right now is worth that $500,000. And in some ways, what they would argue, is the publicity, you know, that a lawsuit, if Julie Hermann would have. There were threats of a lawsuit, that she would have tried to —
Mishkin: It would have been worse.
Sargeant: It would have been worse. Negative headlines and the publicity. So, Rutgers, you have to remember they’re a $3 billion operation. All of their decision makers are board of governors who are heads of corporations of big businesses. Their first instinct is not to get sued. When that happens, you don’t want to get sued and you want to just make the problem go away.