March 02, 2010
Since initially floating the idea in December, the Big Ten has vowed to take its sweet time -- 12 to 18 months -- reviewing whether it even wants to add a 12th team to its ranks. But much of the groundwork on the biggest question ("Should we or shouldn't we?") has already been laid, according to the Chicago Tribune. The paper reported Tuesday that Chicago-based investment firm William Blair & Company has run the numbers and reported back to the conference that, yes, expansion will pay off if the league adds the right team(s). An anonymous source inside the conference told the Tribune that five schools have passed the initial reviews: Missouri, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Rutgers. No surprises there.
What is surprising, though, is the Tribune's tentative favorite among that quintet: Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have been consistently dismissed as the least competitive option on the field/court, and the least serious about (or capable of) becoming competitive. But assuming Notre Dame remains off-limits, reporter Teddy Greenstein argues that the Scarlet Knights are a better fit than Missouri or Pittsburgh according to the league's main criteria -- revenue, geography, academics and recruiting:
Fans wonder: Does New York care about Rutgers? The simplest answer: When Rutgers wins, yes. During Rutgers' football nirvana season of 2006, its game against Louisville on ESPN drew an 8.1 rating in the New York market, a "phenomenal number," according to one TV executive. That night, the Empire State Building was lit up in scarlet.
The New York market has 7.5 million TV homes, and the Big Ten Network would love to get them on expanded basic cable rather than forcing subscribers to pay extra via a sports tier.
Rutgers just completed a $102 million renovation of its football stadium that added more than 12,000 seats, 1,000 club-level seats, a $5 million recruiting lounge -- and earned the ire of opposition groups. Capacity is up to 52,454 with an option for building a third deck.
The New York/New Jersey area feeds the nation's top-rated basketball conference, the Big East, much of its talent.
Greenstein notes that Rutgers also is playing Army this fall in the first major college game in the new Meadowlands Stadium, the $1.4 billion palace opening this fall for the NFL's Jets and Giants and an ideal site for packing in 80,000-plus when Penn State, Ohio State and/or Michigan come to town. The school also is in the process of overhauling its outdated basketball arena.
Greenstein did not note that Rutgers has never really won big, certainly not on a level that really captures the Big Apple's attention for more than a few hours. The football team has never finished in the top 10 of the final polls or played in a major bowl game and didn't play its first nationally televised game until 1996. The outpouring over the big Thursday night win over Louisville in '06 was, to date, a once-a-century event for the Knights that hadn't been matched before and hasn't since. During that game, ESPN ran a segment asking random Manhattanites if they could name a single Rutgers player, which they predictably could not. This, again, at the historical peak for one of the most notoriously inept programs in the country over the last 30 years. RU has been a player in big-time college sports literally from the beginning, but never on a Big Ten-worthy level for any extended period of time.
On the other hand, for such a long-established program, RU has the best growth potential of the possible targets -- the increased investment in revenue sports (i.e. football and basketball) over the last five years, as controversial as it's been on campus. It has yielded obvious results on the field, where the Knights have five straight winning seasons for the first time since the Carter Administration (and against better competition than they faced in those pre-Big East days). The men's basketball program isn't there yet, but inroads into the rich NYC hoops circuit could dramatically improve the conference's talent competitiveness on the hardwood. At this early stage, dismiss the siren call of Gotham at your own peril.