A lot was made of Rutgers’ move to the Big Ten this year. Will Rutgers be better or worse in the Big Ten?
It’s October 20 and the Rutgers football team is 5-2 and looking forward to a game against a heavily favored opponent. The sports media took little interest in the game, except to poke fun at Rutgers’ name and lack of name recognition. A local journalist from the opponent’s area wrote, “I guess I have been asked a hundred times this week. “What are rutgers?” Some people seem to think that they are something like mathematics or physics. Others say that they always come in groups, and that it is impossible to find just one rutger by itself. One housewife told me that she bought a pound of them last week for 59 cents but they must have been on sale because another lady said that she usually pays 89 cents a pound for them. This one man who has been up East told me that he doesn’t know exactly what rutgers are but he’s pretty sure that they are quite a bit like yonkers. Now if I just knew what yonkers were.”
The year was 1979, the opponent was Tennessee. Rutgers won, 13-7.
Fast forward 35 years. It’s October 20 and the Rutgers football team is 5-2. They just lost a game against a heavily favored opponent, Ohio State. Before the game, the New York Times took a little interest in the game; just enough to poke fun at Rutgers’ name and lack of name recognition. Columnist Harvey Araton took an informal poll of Ohio State students to prove that most of them had not heard of Rutgers or did not know the team’s nickname. He wrote of his panelists, “to their credit, the Buckeyes’ fans were more sheepishly than derisively uninformed about this new conference foe.” This time around, there were no miracles, not even of a sports kind. Rutgers lost, 56-17. [Most recently, Rutgers lost to Nebraska, 42-24.]
What should we make of this repetition? Is Rutgers stuck in a never-ending rut, doomed to repeat its cycle of ups and downs that could be called booms and busts if they weren’t so inconsequential to the rest of the sports world?
I don’t think so. Despite the eerie similarities between today and 1979, the landscape of college football has changed enormously. Rutgers was one of many independent schools in 1979. Today only a handful of teams remain independent: Army, Navy, Notre Dame, and BYU. Being in a conference is a financial necessity for most football programs. The conferences are the primary entity that negotiate for television deals that these days, are worth, according to Forbes, over $200 million a year.
When Rutgers made the decision to jump ship from the Big East to the Big Ten, it did so to escape a rapidly sinking one. The football teams left in the sinking Big East ship reformed as the American Athletic Conference, a new league that could only attract a television deal of $20-$25 million per year. From a financial perspective, Rutgers made a good deal. It will collect as much per year as a member of the Big Ten as the entire conference they left will make.
And college football may change even more in the next five. The hypocritical union of the NCAA and universities with big-time football programs is starting to crack. In the past year we’ve seen a judicial ruling in favor of players being considered as employees, the implementation of a playoff system that the NCAA had long resisted, and a series of undermining scandals.
The status quo is losing its hold on the sport. In a time of instability, it’s better to be on the inside looking out than the outside looking in. The Big Ten is the inside. Founded in 1896, the Big Ten is the oldest remaining football conference. Although it’s relatively weak this year (only three teams in the top twenty five), its history, reputation, and (most importantly) its member schools with enormous and enormously interested fan bases will keep the Big Ten in a privileged position as the giant game of football musical chairs plays out.
Exactly what will happen in the next great transformation of the college football world, no one can say. If it got serious about reform, the NCAA could retain its control over the sport, and the changes would be evolutionary. If not, it’s most likely that the five biggest conferences, the SEC, PAC 12, Big 12, ACC, and Big Ten, would break off and form a loose confederation that ignores the NCAA and excludes the smaller schools. The most radical transformation would be college football programs divorcing themselves from the universities and forming a semi-pro league that pays players a fair-market wage. In this scenario, schools would probably retain football as a sport but it would have more in common with an intramural league than with the current football extravaganzas we see.
Regardless of what happens, Rutgers football has positioned itself well by entering the Big Ten. If you’re a fan of college football as it has been, you’re happy to see Rutgers in a respected conference. If you’re a fan who can’t wait for the future, you’re happy to see Rutgers playing from a position of power, ready to blaze a new path as a member of a new league. If you’re someone who thinks big football has no place within the university system, you’re hoping for a semi-pro future for the Big Ten or for Rutgers to opt out of college football at the highest level. The question is not “what is a rutgers” but what will Rutgers become?
Ezra Fischer, Rutgers ’04, is the founder of Dear Sports Fan, a blog that seeks to narrow the gap between hard-core fans, casual fans, and non-sports fans by explaining the basics of how sports work. Read and subscribe at www.dearsportsfan.com and send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.