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Conference Expansion Shakes College Sports Up Again. Long term, is this a good thing for Rutgers?

The college sports world is changing—again. I worry that it will continue to change so much that Rutgers world won’t have the same potential is does right now.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

We’re cheering on dollar signs.

That is what ran through my mind when news broke that the Big Ten was adding USC and UCLA. Rutgers fans were celebrating on Twitter about the story. Conferences around the country have been crumbling under the weight of football movement, but the Scarlet Knights still have a seat at the table in the Big Ten—becoming one of potentially two power conferences along with the SEC.

Short term, this is excellent for Rutgers. They aren’t UConn or Syracuse or Boston College—teams that were strong in the early 2000s, but now have been weakened by conference movement. Syracuse and BC bolted the Big East for the ACC as soon as they could and haven’t been the same since. And UConn was left in the dust after Rutgers and Maryland went to the Big Ten, and is now independent in football. Scarlet Knights fans have taken great pleasure in these developments.

Rutgers is in a prime spot. They have the R Fund to help build facilities and Knights of the Raritan and Knight Society to help with NIL. All good things.

The Scarlet Knights athletic department is about to make a windfall in TV payouts and that’s great. Maybe Rutgers fans can be happy that they won’t have to read long stories about spending after someone sends out a bunch of OPRA requests. But beyond that, does the payout matter to fans? It’s not like Rutgers fans are going to see a dime of it. And, at the same time, everyone else in the conference will make the same amount, so while it will help Rutgers be step up from those left out to dry, it won’t help them vs. conference foes.

In fact, some could argue that the job just got harder for Greg Schiano and everyone else in the athletic department. The Big Ten didn’t bring in slouches—they brought in brand names and traditional powers. USC just hired a fantastic coach and is going to be a football force. UCLA is coming off a recent Final Four appearance. At least at the moment, Rutgers basketball has things rolling from a winning and recruiting perspective. Football is landing the players, but it is going to take some time for them to develop. But UCLA and USC both finished in the top 15 of the Directors Cup standings, and the travel will be hell on all teams, particularly the Olympic sports.

And then, there are the long term concerns. As a basketball first fan, I am very, very worried about the long term prospects of the NCAA tournament. These power football schools seem to want to break away from everyone else—and that concerns me. Because basketball does not matter in this conversation and while the NCAA Tournament is a big time money maker, it could still go away if these two conferences can find a way to leverage more money without the smaller name schools. This article puts it well. “CBS isn’t paying for Saint Peter’s...They’re paying to see if Saint Peter’s can beat North Carolina.” These two conferences might be able to create a tournament where they don’t need St. Peter’s and can still pull in huge dollars.

To me, as a college hoops fan first, that sucks. As Gary Parrish says, after talking to people in TV, it would probably be “more lucrative” money wise if these football school winnow the teams down and away from the little guy. The product won’t be as compelling, but the money would be great.

Again, we’re cheering for money. Not wins and not entertainment, but money.

Which brings me to my last fear. College Football reminds me of the Nothing in the movie The Neverending Story—a power that destroys everything in its part by absorbing it all. Football wants to keep burrowing forward, taking out anything in its way in order to up its payout. So, here’s the doomsday scenario:

What if, five or ten years down the road, Rutgers gets left out?

But, Dave White, you narrow-minded basketball fan, you say, Rutgers isn’t getting kicked out of the Big Ten. They bring in eyeballs because of their location, the proximity to New York and amount of cable subscribers that brings.

Ratings, baby.

Ah, but I didn’t say they were getting kicked out.

No, I’m more and more concerned that ratings won’t matter—algorithms will. We are moving toward a streaming world, where anyone can watch anything. The Big Ten is still looking to expand and it won’t be about location, so much as brand name. Top schools that will bring eyeballs and make the competition even tougher.

Or, even worse, what if the best 30 football programs in the country—Ohio State, USC, Penn State and Michigan for example, decide to leave their respective conferences and start something new? The Amazon Prime League. Or Apple TV+ Football. Who knows? Maybe they even try to create their own streaming service.

Rutgers location won’t matter then. What will matter is the teams that everyone talks about will be matched up with each other week after week after week. Ohio State vs. Clemson. Notre Dame vs. Michigan. USC vs. Auburn. Does the Northeast Corridor even matter when it comes to college football powerhouses?

Rutgers would still be in the Big Ten, but it would be a dramatically weakened one. It seems silly, but something in the back of my mind can’t rule it out. Schools do not have conference loyalty anymore. And if Ohio State sees a chance to make 500 million dollars instead of 100 million, they are going to jump at it.

Just like Rutgers left their traditional rivals behind, first the Atlantic 10, and then in the Big East. They did it to save themselves. They did it for money. They cashed in and right now it’s paying off.

I can’t blame them. Most of us would have done the same thing. And so far its led to a remarkable turnaround by the athletic department in the past ten years. There is good leadership here. Steve Pikiell has Rutgers basketball rolling. Greg Schiano is developing football.

Rutgers is good. They currently have a seat at the table. I am very happy about that. It’s exciting to see the Scarlet Knights on the field and the court facing off against big time teams. And currently with Jonathan Holloway and Pat Hobbs, Rutgers has good leaders who are both aligned and get what the sport is coming.

The concern is that might not be enough. Rutgers only sin could be that it is a great academic school with athletics on the rise instead of being a college football blueblood. And of course, college basketball’s sin is that it’s not football.

Long term, I am worried about the direction realignment is sending things. Being good might not be enough. What will matter matter most is money. And the algorithm—even at the expense of what happens on the field.

And I’m not sure if I’m okay just cheering on bank deposits.