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Damned if you do

If I took the time here to respond to every critical editorial about Rutgers football published in the local papers, I wouldn't have time to post about anything else. Nevertheless, occasionally it's a good idea to stay in practice by tearing one of them to shreds. On Friday, the Asbury Park Press published another one on the subject, notable only for the fact that the APP's op/ed page has seemingly never had a kind word to say about Rutgers football. They're a broken record at this point (Beat Visitor concurs, by the way).

There will always be naysayers (just like there will always be unrealistic optimists). They have been consistently wrong to this point, proven wrong in every instance of chastising and predicting doom. None of that has changed now, even with the football program indisputably moving in the right direction. The APP's awful track record on this subject belies their bad intentions and lack of sincerity. They are pile jumping at a perceived opportune time, which shows their true colors, and should not be forgotten any time soon.

This one wasn't as dismissively execrable as the sister piece from all of the Gannett papers earlier in the week, but was still genuinely awful in its own unique way. Therefore, I felt compelled to respond in a timely manner. I did outline a few points below over the last few days, but mostly banged this out just now. Any oversights, mishaps, and other general sloppiness resulting from that general lack of editing are completely my fault and responsbility. I apologize in advance for anything along the lines, and sincerely hope that they don't detract from or weaken my counterarguments. However, I thought the drawbacks from waiting longer were far greater, and wanted to get this post out as quickly as possible in response. This is, obviously, a sore spot for me. Please, by all means, pass this link around if you agree with what I have to say. So, without further adieu:

Lagging season-ticket sales

Let's stop right there, at the very first phrase even. With 30,000 tickets sold (hey, do you not like getting hits, fix your site already), Rutgers is actually ahead of last year's sellout total of 28,000 season tickets. 90% of last year's ticket holders renewed, and 35% of people on the 12,000 long waiting list purchased tickets. As of a month ago, between 7,000 and 9,000 season ticket packages remained unsold, in a stadium increasing capacity to 52, 454.

This is in the midst of a severe recession (college football ticket sales are slumping throughout the country, as are other forms of discretionary entertainment spending), a horrible home out of conference schedule, and a 25% price increase for season tickets. And here we are, speculating about season ticket sales in July. Shouldn't we see how the mini-packages and walk up sales go before making any definitive statement on the matter?

Yet, as tuition is rising and administrators are negotiating with faculty to ward off further staff cuts, the university is continuing to beef up its football program.

By floating bonds tied to future ticket sales, not seizing and diverting monies from the school's general fund. Yes, Rutgers University is on the hook if the ticket sales don't come through, but athletic department projections aren't exactly unrealistic. Meet the 85%/75% attendance assumption and we're in the clear.

School officials last year used the 12,000 names on the season-ticket waiting list to justify borrowing $102 million to add 12,424 new seats to the stadium. But only about a third of the fans bought tickets.

The expansion was as much about future growth as it was the present. What about when people have disposable income again, and want to buy more seats? Expanding the stadium wasn't a "luxury", as arguably the new recruiting lounge is. Its purpose is to improve the football program's structural, long-term growth prospects. Rutgers neglected its football program for decades, and is still making up for lost time. If you ever want football to be in the black, if you want the ancillary, difficult to quantify benefits for the rest of the school, it will have to sell a lot more tickets, and expansion is the only way down that path.

By comparison, let's look at how other local sports teams are faring in these matters. Now, I am not attempting to claim that two wrongs make a right here, but some context and proportionality would be nice. A New York state Assemblyman estimated that the Yankees received between $550 million and $850 million in taxpayer subsidies to build their new stadium, AND they are currently unable to sell all the tickets, owing to very high prices. (Which may not have been their goal, they might very well make more money with the current setup as opposed to a full house at cheaper rates.)

In contrast, New Jersey exempted the new Meadowlands Stadium (along with Xanadu) from paying its compulsory developer fees. Taxpayers will foot the bill for millions in environmental cleanup for Xanadu. The Giants and Jets? $225 million in transportation improvements, waiving $100 million in debt left on the old stadium, $30 million in infrastructure, paying only modest rent of $7 million a year, and impunity to further develop the site in the future. Look at how Xanadu patron/Bob Mulcahy-backstabber George Zoffinger portrayed it:

With a glint in his eye, Zoffinger explained the reason he moved from Montgomery to New Hope, Pa., where he now lives. He said it was because of something he said to New York Giants' owners Wellington and John Mara at a time when they were seeking improvements to Giants Stadium.

"I told them, "You'll never get a dime of my tax money,' " he said.

Eventually a deal was made by acting Gov. Richard J. Codey for a new stadium for the Giants and Jets. Zoffinger maintains it is an awful deal for New Jersey taxpayers, amounting to a giveaway to "three billionaires from New York," referring to the co-owners of the Giants and the sole owner of the Jets.

"With all this (New Jersey) tax money going to them, I was forced to move to Pennsylvania," he said.

The Giants have a legendary 140,000 long waiting list, and even they couldn't sell their new stadium's expensive new PSLs. Is interest in the Giants fading? The Yankees? No, it's ridiculous to cite those numbers in this kind of argument. If you have a few thousand burning a hole in your pocket, one can drive up to East Rutherford right now and score season tickets. People still follow the teams, they just can only dig so deep before hitting their breaking points. All are still valued, but the prices are only so elastic before you throw your hands up and decide to watch the game at home. And last I checked, Rutgers and the Big East conference were getting some revenue from ESPN and SNY for that privilege.

Even as Rutgers is trying to lure people to the stadium this year to help pay back the $102 million for its expansion, it is planning to add $5 million to the cost by constructing an upscale lounge and "welcome center" for football and other recruits. Although the money is coming from private donors, it's a kick in the teeth to athletes who participated in the six varsity sports, including tennis and swimming, that were eliminated in 2006 for budget reasons. Private donors tried to keep those programs going, pledging $3 million for the six sports, which had a total annual budget of about $800,000. But they were spurned by university officials, who said sports programs couldn't be funded through donations.

Rutgers is getting knocked for private donations? Isn't this the way you're supposed to do it? Public subsidy = bad. Private = good. That's what you learn on mother's knee. Why would football donors want to spend money supporting things that they have no interest in? It's awful that the six sports are gone, but at this point, it's time to accept that they have no chance of coming back. The school wasn't in compliance with Title IX, and was facing severe budget cuts. You can't run as many sports as Ohio State with half the budget.

It was the precipice of a nation wide trend; even mighty Stanford is ready to cut sports at this point. The axed sports lined up short term donors, but no one willing to support them over the long haul. Sometimes you have to make difficult, awful, gut-wrenching decisions, choosing between the lesser of two evils. There were awful consequences and repercussions to the cuts, but the alternative was even worse. That's life.

The stadium expansion has been a boondoggle from the start. It initially was pushed by school and government officials who said private donations would cover about a third of the cost. Gov. Jon Corzine and Sen. Ray Lesniak, D-Union, said they would have no problem finding $30 million in pledges toward the $102 million. But they fell $20 million short and the school borrowed the entire amount anyway.

Gov. Corzine initially promised state support (as was given to the other projects mentioned above) to the Rutgers Stadium expansion project, but pulled back in 2007 in light of a declining budget situation. He then promised to lead a fundraising effort to make up the difference, but was hamstrung by state ethical guidelines. What exactly is Rutgers guilty of here, besides being too trusting of a Governor that didn't make due on all of his promises when caught in a difficult situation?

Hopefully, the new "mini" ticket plans being offered by Rutgers will be snapped up. The university needs fannies in those seats to help pay the expansion bills. If they aren't filled, the cheers of fans will be drowned out by the boos of taxpayers.

Here's a math lesson for the Asbury Park Press. Rutgers receives approximately one quarter of its budget from the state of New Jersey, and that has been steadily declining by the year over the past two decades. The rest comes from (exorbitant, and steadily rising) tuition and other sources. In the absolute worst case scenario, ludicrously assuming that Rutgers will not sell a single football ticket ever again, New Jersey taxpayers will be on the hook for $25.5 million. Which, while outrageous and unacceptable, doesn't even come close to the largesse given to our neighbors in East Rutherford four years ago.

In all likelihood, the total cost to the taxpayer won't even approach that amount, if any state subsidies are even necessary at all. By all means, rip Rutgers to shreds if they do end up spending taxpayer funds on this project, but any fair outrage should be proportionate. Until then, the Asbury Park Press's op/ed page remains a rag, severely lacking in the credibility department.

(Edit: and here's my first revision! In the minutes after posting, I refreshed my RSS feeds, and saw the new story about the Giants cutting their ticket prices.)