There’s a saying round these parts that you’ve probably heard ad nauseum:
Rutgers is the Sleeping Giant.
The idea is that Rutgers University has potential in the sporting world to be the Next Big Thing. Why, you ask?
Just like in real estate.
Let’s break it down slightly further:
- New Jersey is the country’s most densely populated state
- Rutgers resides in the heart of the Northeast US Megalopolis
- New Jersey high school sports have a long history of success across the board
- Fan/media interest in high performing Rutgers’ teams has always been high - NJ/NYC loves a winner
- Rutgers’ campus, student body, and alumni base are massive
- No other major football programs in-state
- Only a handful of mid-majors in basketball (yeah, yeah Seton Hall, when you show up to the Hardwood Classic every year we can talk about it)
- Most other in-state college sports programs make meaningful contributions to the sporting world at large only with spot appearances or exceptional individual teams/athletes
All the ingredients are there, yet Rutgers has never enjoyed the sustained football success of a program like Ohio State or the all-around sports excellence of a Michigan.
Why? How did we get here? And what does the future hold?
Let’s break it down.
Bob Cancro did a great response a couple years back to some OTE trollery, with his response entitled Sleeping Giant? Yeah, I’ll Go With That.
I could try to provide a summary, but this paragraph really hits the nail on the head with historical context:
Which brings me to the reality that Rutgers was not a big school with big ambitions until the time that Yankee Stadium was hosting that last Army-Notre Dame game in 1969. Rutgers was a small, almost local college that had no ambitions of being a big time athletic program until President Edward Bloustein pretty much decreed in the later 1970s we were going to do it. No funding, no fundraising, no promotion. Just kinda stumble into it. And truthfully, until the last decade or so there was still no real effort to make the leap the way it was supposed to be done. But just like in Field of Dreams, if you build it, they will come. Or in the case here, if you promote it and do it right, they will come. And watch.
It’s all spot on.
There’s also an issue of execution. Rutgers started working towards a big time sports future in the 70’s, but it takes a long time to establish that culture of success - more specifically, to establish the working processes, staff, infrastructure, and reputation to sustain that success. Anyone who watched Rutgers fumble its way through the 80’s and 90’s will verify that it was just a painful series of poorly-handled administrative blunders punctuated by moments of brilliance from student athletes.
To be fair, if we’re including Dodgeballgate and Secret Agent Flood, it might well be something we’re still working through.
In life and in sports, progress is non-linear. You take a step forward, then a step back, then two steps forward, then fourteen steps to the side? Then you do a backflip? You’ve all lived this. Rutgers Athletics has just lived this while trying to claw its way up from The Middle Three to the Big East to the Big Ten.
So, what does the future telemetry look like?
In short, good.
Okay, less words more charts.
Let’s assume there’s a correlation between money and athletic success. Yeah, I know, real novel.
If we look at USA Today’s excellent NCAA Finances page and work from those numbers, we can find some interesting information about the recent (2018-2019) financial picture:
Avg. School Revenue by Conference
In graph format because numbers are hard for humans to process:
Some interesting notes because I can’t help myself:
- While the SEC inched ahead of the Big Ten, the Power 5 schools are clearly on another level.
- The AAC is inching its way up. The difference between the AAC and Pac-12 is less than the Pac 12 and the SEC (although the recent Big East restructuring probably throws a wrench in that).
- Boy, there are a lot of conferences.
Ok, more relevant:
Revenue by School
Notice something interesting about that chart? Yeah, Ohio State has double the revenue of Rutgers. For two teams in the same conference, that’s bonkers and a reflection that the NCAA is not a sports entity based on parity. To be fair, it’s why looking at it from the macro perspective is so interesting, but it’s pretty stark when you see the numbers.
So, how do we project these numbers into the future?
Well, helpfully, USA Today also breaks out each school, including Dear Old Rutgers:
You can see where Rutgers joined the Big Ten in 2014 (red bar), paid out its exit fee, and started receiving Big Ten rev share and ancillary lift in 2016 (green bar), which slowly starts to creep up until arriving at full rev share in 2027. This number is approximately 3% per year, according to this big fancy report produced for RU by College Sports Solutions.
Because I was curious, I wanted to see what Rutgers revenue was compared to the rest of the Big Ten over that time period. So I just took Purdue and Ohio State and averaged it (I’m lazy, pay me in more than A+ dank memes and you get better than napkin math):
Interestingly, Purdue and Rutgers cross over each other numerous times, according to the USA Today database. OSU and the average, not so much. What we can conclude here is that Rutgers and the very lowest end of the Big Ten revenue generators have probably been on par for the past few years, which I did not expect. Props to Purdue for ever competing in this meat grinder.
So naturally the next thing I wanted to do was see what Rutgers’s lifetime revenue looks like against the Big Ten based on what, 2% inflation? Again, don’t get too precious. This is napkin math, but charts are fun so let’s do some more!
One argument I love to make about Rutgers vs. the Big Ten is lifetime revenue. The idea being all of these Big Ten schools have had forever to build institutional value, while Rutgers really only started in the 70’s. So, how much gross value do we think these schools have accrued over that time?
Answer...holy cow. A lot.
Rutgers is way at the bottom of that chart, but weighs in with almost 2 Billion Dollars of revenue since 1970 (makes you think twice about that cold take about athlete NIL rights hmm?). Of course it’s not much compared to even Purdue’s level of revenue (the trendline is what kills it. Remember, Rutgers was making not very much at all as a Big East member) and Ohio State rocking over 4 billion dollars of institutional value explains a lot about how Ohio State does Ohio State things today.
Honestly, I thought this chart would be more stark in its comparison, but it leaves out the years before Rutgers joined the Big East, when it was bringing in much less revenue. The fun argument here Rutgers fans is that at a very conservative estimate, you can call out just about any school in the Big Ten not named Purdue for having a decades head start and about double the lifetime revenue.
Okay, that’s enough faffing about with charts (good golly I’m having too much fun here). Let’s get to the meat: What do we think Rutgers is going to do in the future? We understand that money is linked to success. So how much money and when will tell us when the sleeping giant will finally wake his ass up.
Let’s take a stab at what revenue might look like by 2030 including the 3% repayment schedule Rutgers has to make to the Big Ten until 2030 (again, I’m lazy...this almost certainly won’t happen given how media rights are negotiated and how the changing streaming media landscape).
(Reminder: we’re now back to annual revenue, not total revenue over time)
As Kevin Malone would say: “Well, well, well, well, well...”
By 2030, using the current growth projection with the 3% payback, Rutgers should just pull ahead of your average Big Ten team. This is big news, as it means that over a recruiting cycle (let’s call it 5 years for easy math), those funds should level the playing field as new classes cycle through.
What’s our conclusion here? By 2035, Rutgers should be on par in all sports with the average Big Ten school.
Does this take into account the advantages we talked about above? Not really, as $250M gets you better recruits and more media attention in Jersey than in Nebraska. We’re already seeing that now (see below). But, I’m happy to be conservative.
Okay...one last chart. I want to see when Rutgers will be on par with Ohio State (and the top of the B1G).
Oh god...I just broke all my charts...
...okay and we’re back!
According to this napkin math-gone-awry model, Rutgers will pass Ohio State in annual revenue in about 2042. So, by 2050 with that infrastructure in place, we can watch Rutgers and Ohio State compete for national titles.
I can’t wait.
So this article got away from me. I’m not going to lie. I did not foresee that much spreadsheetin’. I had fun though. Thank you for giving me a reason to poke around with some numbers.
We talked about where Rutgers has come from. We talked about where we think Rutgers is going. But where are we on that path?
We’re at the inflection point. It’s a really exciting place to be.
The sleeping giant has awoken.#yeaRinReview pic.twitter.com/0qR6RweWY0— Rutgers Scarlet Knights (@RUAthletics) June 22, 2021
We’re watching the next college dynasty take shape. Yes, we’ve been banging this drum for years. Yes, the comments section has been delightfully brutal.
But we’re all seeing it happen in realtime right now.
The numbers bear it out. Rutgers just finished 60th in the Learfield Director’s Cup, a rating that measures success across multiple sports. That’s 22 points higher than last year and ahead of Michigan State and Purdue (I’m sorry Boilermakers...not trying to dunk on you but the numbers is what the numbers is).
Anecdotally, you’ve all seen it too. Closer games. Rutgers winning Big Ten contests and placing high in invitationals. Both Rutgers men’s and women’s basketball teams in the NCAA Tournament. Football making strides. Soccer, lacrosse, rowing and wrestling all doing exceptionally well.
These are non-linear trends in real life, but they are one-way trends. We’re only going to see Rutgers find more future success as the funds from this glorious conference start bringing facilities up to par, bring top-flight coaches to the banks, and continue to build Rutgers’ reputation as both a premiere academic and athletic institution.
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again one more time for the folks in the back: The Sleeping Giant is stirring.