Rutgers in position to be big winner or loser
BY EVAN WEINER
The future of the Big East Conference and Rutgers University's athletic program are going to become a major topic of conversation among the college sports industry and various cable TV networks in the next few weeks as the Big Ten Conference meets next week to consider future plans. Rutgers may or not be part of the Big Ten Conference's future.
There is one thing certain according to Duke men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. There is change in the air and that might start with the Big Ten adding a school or a number of colleges to the present 11-team conference.
"The dust has not settled yet from expansion of a number of years ago (2003)," said the Duke coach. "Because, it wasn't as clean. There are teams left out, the Big East, you have 16 teams, eight of them are football schools, eight of them are not. It lends itself to other options and the Big Ten is the catalyst now. If they do something, a lot of dominos will fall."
The Big Ten needs a 12th team so they could have a conference championship game, which they could put out for bid before over-the-air and cable networks which will be in additional cash.
The Big Ten may have Rutgers and Pittsburgh on the radar screen or maybe not. The Big East is concerned that other conferences may come after some of the conference's teams, such as Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse or Connecticut and the conference hired former National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue as a special advisor on "strategic planning" in an effort to keep the conference going. The Big East is not the only one that has added an "advisor." The Pac 10 has a new Commissioner, Larry Scott and has gone Hollywood as it has hired Creative Artists Agency to see what they can do about forming a network to enhance TV coverage by 2012.
The Big East is a basketball conference, not a football alliance and it is football, not basketball, that drives college revenues.
Krzyzewski knows that and so does Geno Auriemma, the coach of the University of Connecticut's women's basketball squad.
"I keep hearing different reports of which schools are going to be approached," said Auriemma. "You don't know which to believe and which not to believe. The one thing you can be sure of, something is going to happen. The Big East as we know it today will probably won't exist in the future. For me, ideally it would be great if we can keep the league the way it is because it has been successful and we have proven it can be successful. Who are the teams that are going to leave and what impact they are going to have, I think everybody is waiting to see.
"The dilemma that colleges have right now, if you are one of those teams that is approached by another league, whether it is the Big Ten or anybody else, do you turn your back on existing rivalries and loyalties and just go? Financially they have made it that yes, that is exactly what teams are going to do. If you are one of the teams that is not asked, do you sit around and wait for someone to leave and you pick up the pieces or do you now start to become pro-active and you are looking for someplace to go. I think whether you are asked or not asked, everybody is moving in some direction."
In 2003, the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) invited three Big East schools, Boston College, the University of Miami and Virginia Tech to join that collection of schools which forced the Big East into realigning. The Big East has some schools that are attractive to other suitors. Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Rutgers have football and basketball programs. The ACC took three football schools in 2003.
Rutgers, in theory, would be a good fit for a Big Ten expansion because of geography in that the Big Ten Network, a cable TV partnership between the 11 universities in the conference and FOX Cable Networks. That network has 45 million subscribers and contributes to each school getting an annual check for $22 million from TV revenues. The Big Ten could increase the cable TV footprint by adding Rutgers which, is in Comcast, Cablevision and Time Warner territory. An increase in a cable TV footprint means more cable TV revenues from subscribers. Comcast can put the Big Ten Network on any of the company's systems outside of the Big Ten and carries the network on systems with the Big Ten territory so New Jersey would get the network if Rutgers joins the conference.
But adding Rutgers does not necessarily mean that the Big Ten will "get" all of the New York market as neither Charles Dolan's Cablevision nor Time Warner, the other big New York area MSOs are locks to take the channel. Rutgers also has a problem in terms of the size of the stadium. As one time NCAA President, the late Myles Brand pointed out; you need between 80 and 90 thousand seats in a football stadium to really make money.
The Big Ten has to look at both sides of the coin in terms of adding Rutgers. The Big Ten has had Rutgers on a list of schools that make sense for conference expansion. But conference expansion is really not all that complicated according to Auriemma.
"This is all going to come down to college president's deciding this is what is best for our university from an academic standpoint and certainly financially, none of these moves would be happening if it was not financially rewarding."
No one is talking about Connecticut moving out of the Big East, not yet anyway. But Connecticut has a 40,000 seat football stadium, two top notch basketball programs and also claims part of the New York City market in terms of a following. If Maryland jumped from the ACC to the Big Ten, Connecticut might be a good fit in the ACC.
It is the new domino theory.
"Georgetown, St. John's, Syracuse back in the day (1979) were the reasons why the Big East became the Big East in basketball," said Auriemma. "Well if you look at the Big East now, Connecticut is one reason the Big East is the Big East. Are we going to stay and become the linchpin of that league or someone thinks we are attractive enough now that we bring a lot to the table.
"I don't know of any school in our league or in a lot of leagues that brings more to the table academically and program wise up and down the entire sports spectrum."
Auriemma did say he has no idea how others view Connecticut.
Is conference expansion good?
For TV money yes, but schools lose local rivals and in Connecticut's case there are now long trips to the south to play in Florida or in the Midwest instead of the I-95 corridor. But the money is too good to pass up.
"From a cable standpoint, if you got your own network like the Big Ten does, sure you want to expand that network all over the country. Absolutely," said Auriemma. "But in terms of bringing a market (into a conference) when you don't have your own TV network, it doesn't do anything for you.
"Unless a league, and the Big Ten is way ahead of everybody in this regard, has their own TV network and is able to expand that and is looking for acquisitions that is going to give them that coverage all over the country, just to get in a league because ESPN, CBS or somebody may do this, that or the other thing. That has proven that doesn't work. I live in New England and I don't know everybody in the Boston area who says, hey BC is playing Clemson tonight, I got to get a ticket for that.
"These decisions are going to be made for financial reasons that are going to be impacting these schools 20 years from now, 25-years from now. Creating these super conferences probably and I would bet you that everybody involves with these sees a scenario where they are going to be like what the BCS has done in football."
It is all in the pursuit of money. The money has changed college sports.
"If the Big East is giving Connecticut $7 million and our budget is $50-55 million, whatever it is, and somebody is offering us $22 (million), now you say wow, we can compete now. What I would imagine in these discussions, people are saying, okay well your budget is $100 million, and so is mine and so is his and so is his, so we are all thinking the same thing, we are all going after the same thing so let's all form our own little club and let's compete against each other. If you are one of those other guys you are out.
"Is that fair? No, it is not fair but that is where the world is right now and these people are taking advantage of an opportunity. They saw the model, you have this sized stadium, you produce the revenue and you can join our club, if you don't you are out."
And that leads to a question, has the big time college sports industry gotten out of hand?
"I don't know if it has gotten out of hand as much as it is still in the process of change," said Krzyzewski. "Things change but when our sports is such that if one conference changes, it is going to have a rippling effect. If the Big Ten changes, it is going to change or could change four other conferences or more and I am not sure that is all bad. Change isn't bad. You are constantly looking for ways of improving and if the resources that are needed to fund all the programs each school has, it is not just basketball or football, you have to produce a certain amount of money to do that and if these changes produce that while still giving a quality experience for a student athlete, then I am all for it."
The times, they are a-changing in big time college sports. What makes a school attractive? That is what the solons of the Big Ten will deliberate upon next week. Is Rutgers attractive? Or does Pittsburgh, Missouri, Nebraska and Notre Dame work out better individually or collectively for the Big Ten? If Rutgers is "the other guy" as Auriemma referred to those not asked to join a conference, and if the Big East falls apart what happens?
That is a good question. Rutgers might end up in the ACC or the South East Conference. The game of musical chairs for money is about to begin.