And yet, despite the recent run of bad headlines, Rutgers’ athletic luck might be changing. Although Pernetti wound up losing his job in the Rice scandal, the former Rutgers football player and TV-sports executive understood the nature of big-time college sports in a way his predecessors hadn’t. After being hired to replace Mulcahy as the school’s athletic director, Pernetti monetized virtually everything about Rutgers athletics that could be monetized, whether it was the football stadium’s naming rights (sold for $6.5 million over ten years to a New Jersey IT company) or the opportunity to attend a football practice (which can be yours for a minimum annual $50,000 contribution to the Rutgers booster club). As a result, the subsidy to the athletic department, while still generous, has decreased.
Ironically, Pernetti’s greatest accomplishment came just six days before the events that would lead to his downfall. Last November, it was announced that Rutgers would join the Big Ten in 2014. While his bosses didn’t think it was possible that Rutgers, whose bowl games weren’t Orange or Rose but PapaJohns.com and New Era Pinstripe, would ever compete against the NCAA’s biggest schools, Pernetti knew Rutgers had something the Big Ten wanted more than a good football team: an important television market. He sold the Big Ten on the idea of access to New York’s, the last great swath of unclaimed territory in the college-sports television landscape.
It is television, more than anything else, that drives college sports these days. Rutgers’ ascension to the Big Ten—and its newfound access to the Big Ten’s television dollars—could be the cure for many of its other athletic ills. While Rutgers received $6 million to $8 million a year from the Big East, the Big Ten, its coffers fattened from its own television network, offers its member universities $24 million to $26 million in annual revenue-sharing payments. Rutgers will be able to use that money to reduce the athletic department’s subsidy and further invest in its teams and facilities.
It’s doubtful the Rutgers athletic de-partment will ever be completely self-sufficient—or join the elite ranks of college sports. After all, only 23 of the 228 athletic departments at NCAA Division I public schools cover their expenses. But it’s now a good bet that, at the very least, Rutgers’ pursuit of athletic glory won’t be any more ignominious than anyone else’s.