Over the past two weeks, Rutgers has been outscored by Ohio State and Michigan by a combined 136-0, dropping to 2-4 overall and 0-3 in the Big Ten while sparking yet another round of people asking just why in the hell the Scarlet Knights are a part of the conference. This is to serve as a reminder that while the football team is currently operating at the junior college level, it couldn’t matter less to the the people running the Big Ten.
Rutgers has been a blight on the league since they joined in 2014—a quick scroll through a Rutgers archive filled with darty-loving athletic directors, player arrests, and the usual coaching carousel makes this perfectly plain.
The program isn’t a complete historical nightmare—nine of their overall 10 bowl appearances have come in the past 11 years, after all—but the first two years of Big Ten ball have not been nice to the Scarlet Knights; fans and reporters observing a conference that loves to pound its chest and scream “39 titles!” have taken note. The expansion to rope in (the markets of) Rutgers and Maryland was put on paper in 2012 and became official in 2014, yet pundits like Greg McElroy and Twitter folks are already openly questioning the league’s decision given the backdrop of two incredible losses.
Anybody who followed college football expansion knows that McElroy’s question has a very specific answer: TV money.
By signing on Rutgers, the conference’s lucrative television network was able to lock down deals with Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Cablevision, bringing the Big Ten Network, which is majority owned by Fox, to basic packages in the New York and New Jersey markets. The expansion to the Tri-State area, as well as Washington, D.C., was tagged with a $1 subscription fee for customers—up from the normal 44 cents. With Maryland and Rutgers games being broadcast in the two markets, viewership increased from 52 million to 60 million in a year’s time, per the Baltimore Sun. More viewers, more ads—going for $4,000 per 30-second slot—and ultimately, more money. The conference’s payout from its Cablevision deal alone was up nearly $18 million in 2015, totaling $31.7 million, according to AdAge.
In the same piece, Big Ten Network president Mark Silverman made perfectly clear that money was the motivating factor by citing the perceived competition felt from the ACC’s recent pick-ups of Louisville, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and non-football Notre Dame teams. The ACC has since announced it’s getting a television station of its own, as the ESPN-backed deal will hit airwaves in 2019.
“This is a great opportunity for the Big Ten to really become the anchor league conference on the East coast,” he said. “When ACC raided Big East a second time, taking Syracuse and Pitt from the old Big East, it really created an opening for us…to become the network fans in the New York metro area gravitate to.”
The common misconception McElroy and the rest of the perplexed Big Ten lovers all seem to entertain is that Rutgers was added because it was supposed to be good at football, thus making the ugly results unfolding on millions of screens every week is some kind of mistake. Which, if you live in a fantasy world where college football is about true amateurism and the might of true sportsmanship, sure.
All that really matters to the Big Ten and its network is that the Scarlet Knights replaced an FCS or weak cross-conference foe on the schedules of Big Ten members, meaning the league’s top teams can register another guaranteed victory, only now it counts as a Power Five conference win and mutes the voices of those bemoaning the pay-small-schools-for-wins system. Would league officials prefer Rutgers was good and strong and an actual Division I team? Yes. But they also recognize that preference is not necessary to deem the move a success.
Rutgers sewed on the conference patches and spray-painted the league emblem on their field because, like the people at BTN and Big Ten offices, the people in Piscataway understood the Knights didn’t need to be good at football for this to work. They just needed to be in the right place.