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Published: Friday, 4/11/2014 - Updated: 5 months ago

UConn’s success clouds Big Ten pick

Huskies add 2 tourney trophies as Rutgers stumbles into new conference

BY DAVID BRIGGS
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

COLUMBUS — As the school the Big Ten chose to penetrate the New York market remained beneath a pile of debt and bad press, the school it did not choose planned another two parades.

Is the nation’s richest conference having any buyer’s remorse? Did it whiff in adopting Rutgers over Connecticut?

Big Ten leaders will say no, especially as the league goes all in on its Big Apple experiment. The Chicago-based conference on Thursday announced plans to open a second office in New York City that will be fully staffed by the time Rutgers and Maryland officially come aboard on July 1.

Yet Rutgers’ struggles to crack a largely indifferent college sports market — unless for the wrong reason as a tabloid favorite — coupled with UConn’s reign atop college basketball has renewed debate. While football drives realignment, critics of the Scarlet Knights’ inclusion in the Big Ten note the Huskies’ mounds of basketball championships in a league starved for them, comparable performance on the gridiron, and a similar foothold in New York.

With Connecticut’s win against Kentucky on Monday, the former Big East power has captured more men’s basketball national titles since 1999 (four) than the Big Ten has claimed in football and basketball combined since 1989. The UConn women also won its ninth national title this week.

“The Big Ten blew it when it took Rutgers over Connecticut starting next season,” the New York Times recently wrote. “Beyond the misguided belief that it was buying its way into the New York City market, what was it thinking?”

With the old Big East gone, the thinking is the Big Ten can become the top league in the Northeast and establish a strong presence in the nation’s largest media market. Not to mention the Big Ten Network will now seek to leverage premium monthly fees from millions of East Coast cable and satellite subscribers.

On Thursday, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer called the expansion into largely untapped recruiting grounds “great,” adding that he has “a lot of respect for both” Rutgers and Maryland.

Yet the Big Ten’s gamble on New York, in particular, is complicated. Rutgers kindles little interest, with only 11 percent of New York City residents identifying themselves as avid college football fans, according to Scarborough research.

Compare that to the Toledo market, where a study by The Media Audit found that 71.3 percent of residents regularly follow college football. Birmingham, Ala., was the top metro market (77.1 percent).

“There’s a skewed perspective of college sports in the New York marketplace,” said Lee Berke, a New York-based sports media consultant who advises more 30 pro and college teams. “The reality is that if you take a look at television ratings for sports properties in New York, by far it’s the local teams that drive the agenda, and that’s the pro teams. They dominate the headlines, the back pages of the tabloids year-round.

“There’s certain instances where college basketball can grab attention for a while. You look at St. John’s in the 80s, UConn right now. But the reality is it’s still a pro sports town.”

In that sense, Big Ten expansion is as much about showcasing blue bloods like Ohio State and Michigan to its hundreds of thousands of East Coast alumni and fans as it is turning Rutgers into New York’s team.

According to a study by statistician Nate Silver, Rutgers football captures about 20 percent of a divided college football market. The Scarlet Knights have some 607,000 football fans in New York City, followed by Notre Dame (267,000 fans), Penn State (186,000), UConn (150,000), and Michigan (144,000). Ohio State is ninth with 65,000 fans.

UConn, though, is a far bigger player in the other revenue sport. Its fans overtook Madison Square Garden for the Huskies’ recent Final Four-clinching win against Michigan State. New York City lies about 140 miles from Storrs, Conn., and 40 miles from Rutgers in Piscataway, N.J.

“Anybody Notice Which College Team Has Foothold In New York?” read a headline in the next day’s Hartford (Conn.) Courant.

With the New York market so split — and UConn and Rutgers both ranked by U.S. News as top-25 public universities — many contend the Big Ten should have gone for the bigger brand. But the Huskies endure as the biggest loser in conference realignment, stranded in the second-tier American Athletic Conference.

Rutgers, meanwhile, fights its punchline image.

Its football program has made the year-end national rankings once in the past 38 years, while its basketball team has not made the NCAA tournament since 1991. The school cut six sports in 2007, then watched its debt rise. And the athletic director hired to clean everything up — including basketball coach Mike Rice’s dismissal last year for physically and verbally abusing players — has only brought more baggage.

Julie Hermann was accused of verbally and emotionally abusing the volleyball players she coached at Tennessee in 1996, then recently told Rutgers journalism students that it would be “great” if the newspaper that first reported the allegations — the (Newark) Star-Ledger — went out of business.

Yet perhaps nothing matters more than location, location, location. The Big Ten is all in on its biggest bet in decades.

“The Big Ten is not expecting Rutgers to be Ohio State, or expecting New York to be Chicago,” said Jeff Nelson, an analyst at Navigate Research, a Chicago firm that helps schools determine their market value.

“But it’s at least a foot in the door in that market and it was the best available option. Even with a program like UConn being the basketball power it is, the Big Ten would still pick Rutgers for the long term.”

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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