Among junkies of college football expansion there’s still talk about where the Big Ten’s next move will come. Will they try and pilfer Virginia or Georgia Tech from the ACC? Is there a mega-deal down the road with Texas? Before the Big Ten looks at anything like this, they ought to revisit the biggest mistake they made in the last round of expansion and it was choosing Rutgers over UConn.
The decision to add Rutgers has been sold as an economic boom, from increased cable revenue coming from the New York markets. I think there’s a cause-and-effect narrative being pushed here that I don’t agree with. There’s an implication that Rutgers is somehow crucial to the Big Apple and that they bring something UConn doesn’t.
Proponents or Rutgers cite the fact that Rutgers has more than three times the student body of UConn and studies show they have four times as many college football fans in the New York area. Yet the same studies—they’ve been done by ESPN’s stathead maven Nate Silver and others—also show that only 11 percent of the people in the Big Apple even identify as college football fans, and almost all of them cite Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State as their team of choice.
So Rutgers has four times as many fans, but the number we’re dealing with is virtually inconsequential. What, the Scarlet Knights have eight fans while the Huskies have two? Who cares? If the issue is getting the Big Ten Network on the top tier of cable subscription packages, why doesn’t the passion people have for Michigan, Ohio State or Penn State carry enough weight? The loyalty from these alums regularly extends to non-revenue sports, from hockey to baseball and more, the kind of thing you would want the Big Ten Network to have.
Let’s assume for the moment though that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney couldn’t put together a simple Power Point presentation to show this all to cable providers, and that you really need the superficial appeal of a school in the New York market to close the deal. UConn has to be the better choice.
UConn might be less popular among football among a tiny sliver of fans that divide between them and Rutgers, but they bring other assets to the table. The basketball programs, both men and women’s are infinitely better. The school itself ranks higher in the U.S. News & World Report rankings for academic prestige.
This is the point where most people just interject to say that it’s all about football and if Rutgers provides a marginally better short-term solution, so be it. But that’s way too short-sighted. The success of the UConn basketball programs has built up a residual level of fan support that could easily translate to football if they start winning.
It’s easy to dismiss women’s basketball from a marketing perspective, but bear in mind that the Huskie women aren’t just another championship program. They are in a stratosphere all themselves, much like John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty was in a different era of men’s basketball. The UConn women have a national following. If the football team starts winning is it so hard to see some of that following saying something to the effect of “I’ll root for UConn. Always have rooted for the basketball teams, so I’ll pull for them here.”
That’s the way a “Subway Alumni” is built—the phrase comes from Notre Dame football fans who have no official connection to the school, but love the team. The only way either UConn or Rutgers are really going to impact the New York market is to have just such a fan base. UConn’s broader-based success and building a following outside of football gives them a better chance to do just that.
And even if it doesn’t, the Big Ten was founded in 1896 precisely because member institutions wanted to organize themselves as what they saw against out-of-control athletic departments and have schools to play that shared their values. Those values are that yes, we want to play at a very high level—this isn’t the Ivy League—but we also want to retain our academic character and be well-rounded. UConn is a better school, a better overall athletic department and a better choice for anyone who can see past the immediate gratification of one extra dollar in football revenue.