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Rutgers Awaits “Big” Branding Decision

It was another roller coaster week in New Brunswick, New Jersey. As one Fred Hill achieved a milestone (in baseball), another was let go after a tortuous and painful process, and another Scarlet Knight heard his name called in the first round of the NFL Draft. Maybe all of that activity is a harbinger of what lies ahead for the Scarlet Knights as a program and an institution as the Big Ten continues to ponder what’s going to happen next with the size of its conference.

Is the Rutgers brand a good fit for the Big Ten?

A look back at the past week shows some reasons as to why it may be. While collegiate baseball is a good draw for the student-athlete, even the success that Fred Hill has had during a legendary career is not enough to move the needle for brand exposure or revenue, which holds true for all sports but really two for any institution (hockey maybe is a distant third in some places). So can hoops with a new leader emerge, and can football keep its steady and solid place as a year-in-year-out contender that pouts butts in seats and draw donations, sponsor dollars and TV revenue?

And is the Big East best for both?

Certainly the allure of the “New York market” and maybe even part of Philadelphia for football is an interesting proposition for the Big Ten, but is Rutgers, even by default, a real football draw in a city that has never shown any interest in college football since the 1950’s?

Do those in the boroughs or Long Island even care unless Rutgers is playing for a national title? Maybe not as much as one outside the area would think. However, a Big Ten schedule will probably draw bigger crowds through alumni of visiting schools, and generate more coverage of visiting schools in this area, for the Big Ten and it would give those who are selling The Big Ten another opportunity to entertain clients and conduct activities in person and in the area, an opportunity which doesn’t exist for a network that needs those dollars to continue growing.

Would there be more interest for Rutgers-Michigan than Rutgers-South Florida in football? Sure. But would that offset the interest in Rutgers-Syracuse or Rutgers-West Virginia and would people in this area care more for Rutgers-Purdue or Rutgers-Northwestern? Probably not. Would the monies from Big Ten football help fill budget holes and would the association with Big Ten schools academically lift away other problems for a state system that is struggling with budget issues? Hard to say.

Would hoops on the men’s side grow, or would the Scarlet Knights fall into the Big Ten abyss that Northwestern and Penn State find themselves in annually? Would women’s hoops continue to thrive, clear of the burden of UConn but now tied to other powerhouses?

Most importantly, what would a move to the Big Ten say for the state of Rutgers athletics and the University brand? It really comes down to dollars. Will fans in Iowa care any more if Rutgers joins the Big Ten, as opposed to Missouri or even Syracuse or any combination? No, but maybe brands looking to activate in the college market would. Is Michigan State more important to Rutgers as a draw than Cincinnati or Louisville? Probably yes. Will Rutgers lose rivals that it has had for years? It didn’t seem to really cause long-term damage to Penn State not to be playing Pitt annually any more. Fans adjust, and for better or worse, the constant change in the marketplace in athletics of any level is pretty much understood these days. Those who fret today over no Seton Hall will find a way to love playing Michigan, so long as the result is right.

The point is probably moot unless the Big Ten decides to come a knockin’, as opposed to the other way around.

However, the chase is an interesting one, and bears watching, as much for Rutgers but as to the ripple effect it could create at other schools. The Rutgers brand is as strong as its support across the board no matter where its teams play. And under Tim Pernetti’s leadership the business side of Rutgers athletics appears to be in good hands. If the worst thing that happens to Rutgers is status quo then the overall brand and message will stay the same … be the best major market collegiate sports brand in the Big East, with football leading the way. If they go to the Big Ten, then find ways to be the spoke for Big Ten athletics and branding in the Northeast. Either way, the Scarlet Knights can still win, on the field, in sponsor dollars and ticket sales, and with alumni and students.

The decision awaits.


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