Rutgers sports program mess: NJ taxpayers deserve better

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The Rutgers athletic mess — well-documented for more than a year now by and the USA TODAY Network New Jersey — is still a long way from being cleaned up.

As staff writers Abbott Koloff and Jean Rimbach reported this week, the Scarlet Knights’ athletic program deficits continue to widen. Despite receiving its largest share of Big Ten conference revenue in the program’s last fiscal year, which ended in June, Rutgers Sports is expected to run a budget shortfall of $60 million.

Governor Murphy and President Holloway, let’s be clear, this is not acceptable.

While the $60 million shortfall may scare the minds of many of our readers — most of them New Jersey taxpayers — it’s actually an improvement. Rutgers Sports has posted $73 million in annual deficits in each of the past two years.

Our reporting on Rutgers’ athletic deficit followed another revelation this week: when the Rutgers football program was called up to compete in last year’s Gator Bowl as a replacement team, the Scarlet Knights n received just $537,000 – not enough to cover the team’s airfare and less than a sixth of the money the Gator Bowl ultimately said it paid, according to documents obtained by The Wake Forest University football team, which faced Rutgers in the bowling game, apparently received up to $2.8 million.

Special report for subscribers:The Gator Bowl appearance was a financial meltdown for Rutgers. Here’s why NJ taxpayers took a hit

Gator Bowl officials have refused to address that discrepancy and a Big Ten official, who spoke to us but declined to be named, described the situation as “certainly troubling for us as a conference.”

We can imagine.

What’s going on? Rutgers is clearly out of its league.

Last year, Rutgers Athletics received $53.2 million in Big Ten Conference revenue, much of which came from television. But that sum was eroded by more than $10 million to cover two loans the conference had extended the program.

As Koloff and Rimbach reported, Rutgers’ own budget projections for athletics from a year ago show spending expected to rise about 15% to more than $135 million, which would have been a record level. Revenue was expected to increase by $33 million. When that revenue is limited to the money generated by the athletics division — without state and university assistance — the shortfall amounts to more than $61 million.

Rutgers sports supporters pointed to opportunities to tap into the revenue that could still come from a new Big Ten Conference TV deal, which we reported this week could generate up to $1 billion. dollars over seven years for each of the conference events. 14 member establishments.

Of course, this kind of financial windfall could surely start to balance the books in New Brunswick. That said, we enjoyed the perspective of Andrew Zimbalist, a prominent sports economist who is a faculty member at Smith College and president of the Drake Group, an advocacy organization that seeks academic integrity in college sports.

“Unless there is a new management style, a new management philosophy and cost discipline – and there will be none of those things – then Rutgers can expect to see continued deficits” , said Zimbalist.

“It’s not completely inconceivable that Rutgers will start playing better football, and they’ll have more people in the stands, and you know, they’ll generate additional revenue that way,” he continued. “So I can’t predict that. But in terms of continuing athletic department deficits in the tens of millions of dollars, I think it’s pretty clear…that’s what’s happening for the indefinite future.

Our point of view:Rutgers athletics, operating with deficits, needs immediate fiscal oversight

Holloway, for his part, said Rutgers’ athletics program may never break even and pointed to the fact that the program represents less than 3% of the university’s $5 billion budget. Holloway also said that few university activities generate profits.

We are not under the illusion that higher education – even higher education funded largely by hard-working New Jersey taxpayers – is a business. Rutgers is not a corporation. But its existence as a publicly funded entity requires far more budget discipline and planning than what we saw in our year-long review of sports program finances. We even suggest that New Jersey taxpayers are smart enough to know that an athletics program isn’t always profitable.

But we believe that these same taxpayers have every right to expect that every effort will be made to achieve fiscal prudence, to strive for balanced budgets and to take immediate action to mitigate the spiral of functioning deficits.

We certainly have that expectation – as we do for any state-funded entity in the Garden State.

If Holloway and the Murphy administration don’t move faster to right the ship of the Scarlet Knights, we once again suggest that their colleagues in the Legislative Assembly roll up their sleeves and pursue an investigation as quickly as possible.

In July, after we reported on a litany of extravagance that included a $31,000 beach party — among thousands of expenses paid for with Rutgers athletic credit cards — State Senator Joseph Cryan, D-Union, called on his colleagues to pursue a state takeover of Rutgers’ finances.

Senator, we support this effort.

As we reported in July, Rutgers Athletics spending is clearly out of control.

We repeat: officials in New Brunswick, Trenton and Washington must act.

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