Amidst the recent events surrounding Eric LeGrand, people are once again saying that UConn, or somebody else, should have gotten a B1G invite over Rutgers.
The same thing happened a month ago after Kevin Ollie's Huskies won the program's fourth championship. That run was a showcase for the school, it's basketball program, and the PR dream of a head coach who happens to be one of the most respected people in the game of basketball. There were hours upon hours of primetime publicity.
Does any of this mean that UConn should have gotten that B1G invite over Rutgers?
Basketball achievements and PR success don't matter in the game of Risk that is conference re-alignment. UConn winning a fourth men's basketball national championship doesn't change the fact that Rutgers was the right decision in 2012 as all this was happening. This Eric LeGrand situation, while temporarily embarrassing, will be soon forgotten. None of it matters because this was a decision based purely on television revenue.
If having three men's basketball national championships didn't set us apart, what makes a fourth any better? What if we only made it to the Final Four? How much would we have helped our case then?
Still very little. Athletic department revenue is driven by the football program and the number of television sets you can deliver. In that context Rutgers was a better choice. They have a much larger alumni base in the NYC metro area, better attendance and a larger stadium capacity. As our friend Andrew Porter likes to say, "they were born on third base."
But mostly, the Big Ten Network was looking for a vessel. Allowing Rutgers to join provides a four lane, luxury superhighway into millions of television sets and increased exposure in a recruiting hotbed. It's the same reason they chose Maryland over a number of better athletic programs that they probably could have had.
The B1G already has millions of fans in the New York City and Washington DC markets from its existing membership. When looking for their newest members, they picked schools with the best access to those TV markets. By the numbers, Rutgers and Maryland were the best decisions. They probably considered UConn, but a quick LinkedIn search shows that there are a little over 25,000 Connecticut alumni in the Greater New York City area. Rutgers has 102,715. That isn't the most accurate figure available, but it's a reasonable proxy.
The icing on the cake is that it gives the conference's football powers increased access to fertile recruiting grounds in New Jersey, Maryland and probably helps in Eastern Pennsylvania as well. Better players for everyone!
It doesn't matter that Rutgers sucks at sports. The B1G already has a strong football product and a rabid following. They can afford to dilute the overall quality of football in pursuit of extra zeros on the TV contract. Furthermore, playing in New Jersey and Maryland year over year improves recruiting in those areas. Oh, the Rutgers Athletic Department is an unsuccessful embarrassment? They have a horrible AD, with a predecessor who sucked too? Who cares! Let me know when New Jersey outlaws cable TV and stops producing top-notch high school football players. After that we just need all the Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State fans in New York City to move out.
After TV, ticket revenue is the next key factor. Rutgers' stadium has a capacity of over 50,000. Average attendance is around 44,000. Compare that to UConn with a current capacity of 40,000 (spare me the 'they can expand it' line, that isn't feasible until we fill the stadium as it is today) and average attendance has been in decline for the past three years down to around 30,000 last year. Those are the numbers that mattered to Jim Delany.
Once you get the thought out of your head that the B1G was looking for a value-add athletic department, it becomes easier to see how and why they chose Rutgers over UConn and just accept it. UConn is building something much stronger than a television partner. We're building a national brand.
There are holes in the B1G's logic. Not all Rutgers alumni even root for the school. For people who grow up in New Jersey, RU athletics is an afterthought. Whatever extra money earned could be offset by the priceless publicity and monetary payout that comes from elite basketball success. The only problem is that you can't legally put UConn's National Championship booty on revenue projections. Especially not in November 2012 when this decision was announced- after Jim Calhoun's abrupt retirement and multiple transfers left the program.
Despite three down years, UConn football is a program that has performed well in it's FBS infancy. Before the Big East broke up we were regularly competitive with the likes of Syracuse, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh - we can get back to that level immediately under Bob Diaco. Eventually we will be able to justify greater stadium capacity and as the school continues to draw great students from New England and New York/New Jersey we will have better penetration in New York City, Boston and Greater New England.
I said it for the first time about a year ago, we will be just fine.
UConn will end up in the P5 or Division 4 or whatever form major college sports ends up taking. It will happen within the next 5-10 years and the conference to add Connecticut will be getting a strong program with great TV exposure. UConn Athletics boasts an elite basketball program and will become a regular contender for the Men's and Women's Capital One Cup. Football will get better, hockey and baseball are improving, and the women's basketball program earns like no other in the country. Men's basketball will continue to be a powerhouse as long as Kevin Ollie doesn't leave (ain't happening- not for a while, if ever). Field hockey, soccer and track & field have had notable performances in recent years and continue to improve as well.
I believe in Susan Herbst, Warde Manuel, Bob Diaco and Kevin Ollie. But the fact of the matter is that we just aren't there yet. We have to remember, other major schools boast generation after generation of fervent fanhood. Whereas following UConn football is a relatively new development. This recent round of conference re-alignment had an unfortunate outcome for UConn, but we're making lemonade out of lemons and the AAC is an acceptable temporary home.
I think in the long run, UConn is a better choice than Rutgers for any prospective conference looking to add a quality program to it's ranks. The B1G wasn't looking for that. They wanted as much statistical leverage as possible going into network negotiations in 2015. We have to just accept this and move on.