Pick a moment, any moment, in the history of Rutgers University athletics: The trips to the Final Four, the nationally televised football victory over Louisville, even the entrance into the Big East.
Nothing will be as significant as July 1, the day Rutgers officially joins the Big Ten conference.
The move will introduce the Rutgers brand to a new section of the country, allow its athletic teams to compete at the highest levels and — most important of all — eventually bring a financial windfall that could turn a highly subsidized athletic department into a profitable one.
NJBIZ recently sat down with Julie Hermann, the now second-year athletic director who will guide the school in the transition.
Hermann was open about what the move will mean to the athletics teams, both good — “we can be nationally competitive in all sports” — and bad — “there are going to be some gaps (in talent level).”
And what it will mean to the bottom line — “it gives the athletic department the first opportunity to be self-sustaining.”
The longtime Louisville assistant athletic director, who grew up in Nebraska, also was frank about her introduction to New Jersey and sometimes-contentious and controversial first year on the job (she hit her anniversary on June 16). Here's an answer that may surprise you:
“There are three words to describe people in New Jersey: They are open, they are genuine and they are direct — and I love that,” she said. “As I've said many times, from where I'm from, it can be years before you find out someone didn't like you. Here you know right away.”
With that, a few questions and answers:
NJBIZ: Let's start with sports: how does it change the programs?
Julie Hermann: It's game-changing. It's Rutgers' first chance to create a plan where we can be nationally competitive in all sports.
NJBIZ: That's often easier said than done.
JH: We have a ton of work to do. It's how we message out. For starters, we have 30-plus billboards, making sure the next generation of Jersey athletes know that they can go to their state university and be in the Big Ten Conference. We're caravanning. We have to be more connected to our state. We have to invest in scholarship dollars to award New Jersey's finest with more and more financial aid to compete, especially in sports that aren't fully funded. And with the Big Ten Network, we don't have a coach that's not looking at the national landscape to see who we can sign from Texas to California, really to around the globe.
NJBIZ: Let's talk funding. It will be a while (six years) before the school gets the full financial benefits (some estimates say $50 million). What are you doing until then?
JH: We're constantly fundraising. We have a lot of donors who have stepped up to write checks for term scholarships and for scholarship endowment, and every time they do that, we get closer to being more self-sustaining (currently $4 million of the school's $11 million tuition aid is paid for by donors).”
NJBIZ: Years before you got here, Rutgers dropped a handful of non-revenue Olympic sports — sports that may be supported by big donors. Is that something you still hear about?
JH: Every day. I hear it every day.
NJBIZ: Any chance for their return — especially with the Big Ten windfall?
JH: It has been documented that we don't get all that money on day one. We've got to do a lot of investing in sports that we're still sponsoring now. We don't have the total investment in some of our Olympic sports as it is. Our goal is to step them up to Big Ten level. Way down the road, you can entertain those conversations and see if that fits in Rutgers sports programming or Big Ten sports programming. There were sports that regrettably were dropped that don't have Big Ten championships. If they don't have a Big Ten championship, it makes it a little bit more complicated to consider.
NJBIZ: More on money; let's move to sponsors. You have hired IMG to sell a lot of your rights, but you are still making connections with the business community. How can they benefit from being connected to the athletic program?
JH: It depends on what drives their business. Do they need exposure, what kind of product do they have and who are they trying to sell them to? My first question is, 'What audience are you trying to reach?' If we can't help through onsite or television (advertising) to reach the customer base they are trying to reach, it may not be a good fit for them. If they are trying to support education, there are other options. (Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital) is doing two things: They are buying signs, but they also are stepping up to provide care for our student athletes. To have RWJ provide hospital care for our student athletes raises the experience for our student athletes. It enables us to say to a parent that when you drop your kid at the curb, we've got phenomenal care for them if they get hurt.
NJBIZ: You mention Robert Wood Johnson — and High Point Solutions has the naming rights on the football stadium — who are the other big corporate sponsors?
JH: Johnson & Johnson, Investors (Bank), Audi, AmeriHealth, Hess ... and we've got a lot more coming.
NJBIZ: Another way to raise funds is by moving games off campus, potentially playing football at MetLife Stadium (schools have asked that in the past, and Syracuse recently signed a deal to do so) or basketball at the Prudential Center. Is that a possibility? Have any Big Ten schools talked about playing at bigger facilities?
JH: No one in the Big Ten has said they want to be in a bigger facility. The athletic directors know what it means if I ask them to move a game; they're not going to ask us to move something out of our stadium, away from our students, away from our fan base and away from our season-ticket holders that have stepped up at a whole new level. The only reason we would ever consider a move is if it would be a hugely significant financial gain to the athletic department as a whole. If that happens, I would be the one out there saying this is worth so many more millions to our program and this is why we're doing it.
NJBIZ: Now you personally. The first year certainly has had some not-so-pleasant moments. How have you handled it?
JH: When I got the job my first phone call was to my old boss (Louisville A.D.) Tom Jurich. He said, 'Julie, put your blinders on, you have to be laser-focused on what you're doing.' I've spent this year doing that. I know there have been all kinds of swirl about me; I can't control it. The best part of New Jersey is that you've got to earn it. No one is going to say, 'You've got this job and we're with you'; it's 'We'll see.' If I had my way, it wouldn't be the Garden State, it would be the We'll See State. We'll see if you've got the mojo or not, so I'm going to be focused on that nonstop.
Rutgers has only put two sports up for sale for next year, but both are doing well:
Football: Season-ticket sales are at 25,762 — or more than 7,000 above the total in 2012 (a 32 percent increase). Mini plans have increased by more than 1,000, too.
Wrestling: Season ticket sales have more than doubled from a year ago (432 from 206).
Three things Rutgers’ A.D. Julie Hermann will concentrate on during her second year on the job: