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Rutgers And Mike Rice: A Made-For-TV Scandal

The Mike Rice Scandal at Rutgers – as it will come to be known one day, because calling it “The Rutgers Basketball Scandal” puts the blame where important people don’t want it — pushed all the right buttons in the media. In an environment where more people are questioning the ethics of amateurism in college athletics, here comes a basketball coach, a figure of authority, captured on camera physically assaulting players and using homophobic slurs and other abusive language toward them. ESPN broke the story with the video on Outside The Lines, and all hell broke loose in New Jersey.

That wasn’t all, though. There was the assistant coach, a former NBA player, claiming wrongful termination for blowing the whistle on Rice’s behavior. There was the athletic director, who took the fall for suspending the coach rather than firing him. There was the university president, who couldn’t have looked more incompetent in front of the press. And there were the players, who meekly stood by and said nothing for fear of losing their scholarships.

In the time it took to throw a basketball at some unpaid student-athlete’s head, Rutgers became the top story on SportsCenter for an entire week, right around the same time the NCAA Tournament was reaching its climax and all the network’s college basketball analysts were fully engaged, in front of the camera, and sharing their opinions with everyone.

Meanwhile, somewhere off-camera, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany was probably popping a champagne cork with Big Ten Network executives and reveling in all that airtime their most crucial media asset had obtained.

Big Ten Network logoRutgers and Maryland are joining the Big Ten in 2014 — not because of the quality of their schools or athletic programs, but rather because of the proximity of their media markets. Newark-based Rutgers is a short train ride from New York City, the largest media market in the U.S., while Washington, D.C., the 8th-largest media market, is a stronghold for Terrapins fans. Combined with Penn State, which has a giant fan base in Philadelphia, Rutgers and Maryland give the Big Ten a massive presence on the eastern seaboard. That gives the Big Ten Network extra leverage over cable companies in those cities.

Right now, the Big Ten Network is in roughly 50 million homes across America. The average subscriber fee for the network is roughly 36 cents per month, but that’s an average. Within Big Ten territory, BTN’s subscriber fee is as high as 88 cents per month. Extracting fees like that from media markets as huge as NYC and DC means even more money for the schools, which already split $112 million a year in rights fees from BTN.

Getting higher subscriber fees in D.C., where cries of “Fear the Turtle” are loudest and proudest, shouldn’t be too big of an issue. Getting New York City cable companies to pony up? That’s a more difficult a proposition. It’s just Rutgers, right? The running joke was that Rutgers won the first intercollegiate football game ever played and hadn’t won many more since, until Ray Rice (no relation) showed up and ran over everyone. New York is too busy with the Yankees, Mets, Giants, Jets, Knicks, Nets, Rangers, Islanders, and Red Bulls to bother looking across the Hudson to see what Rutgers is doing.

Ah, but there’s gold in them there boroughs. More than 4 million homes get cable TV in the NYC market. Every penny per month charged to 4 million subscribers adds up to $480,000 a year. Getting $0.88 per month from that many people? That’s a cool $42.24 million per year.

So what’s the real message behind the Mike Rice scandal? Is it that college coaches can’t afford to abuse their authority? Is it that players need to stand up for themselves? Is it that universities care too much about sports/image/damage control/etc.?

Of course not. The real message behind the Mike Rice scandal is that people care about what’s happening at Rutgers. This school is important. It’s been at the top of SportsCenter every night and all over ESPN.com — with an ESPN New York graphic at the top of every page.

Screenshot from ESPN.com
See? New York City cares about Rutgers!

What we have here is an orchestrated effort to paint Rutgers as something that matters to New York City sports fans. Who benefits the most from this? The Big Ten Network. They can go to the cable companies and say, “See? The papers and web sites are all over this Mike Rice scandal, and they wouldn’t be covering this so much if sports fans here in New York/Newark/Jersey City/etc. didn’t care about Rutgers University. Your customers care about Rutgers. You wouldn’t want to deny them the opportunity to see the Scarlet Knights play, now, would you?”

A year later, residents of the five boroughs and northern New Jersey scratch their heads and wonder why their cable bill is a dollar higher than it was last month. Because Rutgers, that’s why.

Meanwhile, ESPN is more than happy to play along, because not only does that network have Big Ten sports through 2016, but it also has the remnants of Big East football in the form of the American Athletic Conference, in which Rutgers will play next season, and better ratings in NYC for those games keeps the ad money flowing in.

Does it seem cynical to you to suggest that this entire scandal was manufactured by TV networks to extract more money out of pay TV subscribers and advertisers in the biggest media market in America? If so, you might want to take a closer look at what corporation owns 49% of the Big Ten Network.

Rupert Murdoch has a history of manipulating the news to try turning elections and laws in his company’s favor. Manipulating sports fans to care about a school so that his company can pull more money from every cable subscriber in New York? That’s child’s play. Murdoch understands how this game works. The Fox Sports 1 launch is proof enough of that.

Let’s not ignore BTN’s 51% owner in all this, though. Big Ten college presidents have signed off on this game, because Jim Delany plays it pretty well himself. He practically started the era of conference realignment when he invited Penn State to join the Big Ten in 1990. He secured seven guaranteed bowl games a year for Big Ten schools. He was instrumental in creating the Bowl Championship Series, which pulls $610 million a year from ESPN, and he was front and center negotiating the current $771-million-per-year TV deal with CBS and Turner for the NCAA Basketball Tournament. All of these things have brought more money and more prestige to the schools he represents — all at the expense of pay TV viewers.

So if a few unpaid student-athletes have to get pegged in the head by some angry basketball-throwing coach… hey, that’s just business, right?

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