Rutgers athletics spends big — and builds big debt — to stay competitive in the Big Ten

James M. O'Neill

Athletics spending was long an issue at Rutgers University, New Jersey’s public university funded with state and taxpayer money. Nevertheless, the department always reported modest deficits and stable debt.

But after a months-long investigation involving nearly a hundred public records requests and a review of thousands of Rutgers financial documents, reporters Jean Rimbach and Abbott Koloff revealed that Rutgers athletics had lost far more than it reported to the NCAA in annual reports, showing its debt had grown to more than $250 million — with half of that being loans to cover operating deficits.

The rising costs were part of joining the Big Ten Conference in 2014, with coaches’ salaries doubling and football — the sport that traditionally brings in cash for athletics divisions — losing millions of dollars.

What our reporters found by creating dozens of spreadsheets, based on audits, cash flow statements, and debt schedules, was an alarming — and until now hidden — flow of state government, taxpayer and student money to athletics. Losses were more than $73 million two years running, followed by $60 million in 2022.

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All this continued even as the university began imposing furloughs for academic and support staff and instituting a hiring freeze to help cut costs to counter rising expenses due to the COVID pandemic, and at a time when some students had such a tough time making ends meet that the university maintained a food pantry on campus.

In addition to cash subsidies, the reporters discovered the university was loaning money to athletics at a disturbing rate, millions of dollars annually to cover operating costs and shortfalls — more than $80 million over six years.

Koloff and Rimbach filed dozens of public records requests and sifted through the records of more than 30,000 credit card purchases totaling nearly $10 million by Rutgers coaches and athletic staff over five years to provide a glimpse of the costs involved in participating in big-time college sports.

Here's a look at their series of stories on Rutgers athletics spending.

‘Unsustainable’: How Rutgers athletics quietly racked up $265M in debt

Rutgers Athletic Director Pat Hobbs as listens to Greg Schiano talk during his introduction ushering in his second tour as Rutgers head football coach on December 4, 2019 at the Hale Center on Rutgers campus in Piscataway, NJ.

After joining the Big Ten, Rutgers University athletics expected to be on firm financial ground. Instead, the athletic division has been losing more money than ever. And almost half of its $265 million in outstanding debt has not gone toward new buildings — it has instead been used to cover the ever-rising operating costs associated with joining the conference.

The university has stepped in, loaning athletics $84 million over the last six years to cover expenses — violating its own policy, which it changed after inquiries from and the USA Today Network New Jersey.

Rutgers had been reporting those loans as revenue — contrary to NCAA guidelines — artificially inflating the athletic department’s earnings and concealing the true budget deficit from the students, their parents and taxpayers who pay the bills.

'Takes your breath away': Murphy calls Rutgers athletics' financial woes 'concerning'

Athletic Director Pat Hobbs, Greg Schiano and Governor Phil Murphy as Schiano is introduced for his second tour as Rutgers head football coach on December 4, 2019 at the Hale Center on Rutgers campus in Piscataway, NJ.

Gov. Phil Murphy called “quite concerning” details revealed in a story in The Record and outlining a pattern of financial dealings that hid the true cost of Rutgers University’s athletics program from the public and violated the school’s own policies. “Just having read what I read — it takes your breath away,” Murphy said at a press conference.

Amid Rutgers football ticket revenue woes, school plans $150 million training complex

The Rutgers mascot Sir Henry fires up the student section  prior to the game as Temple played Rutgers in the season opener at SHI Stadium in Piscataway, NJ on September 4, 2021.

While the Rutgers University football team has been playing home games in a half-empty stadium this season, its heavily indebted athletics division has quietly pushed ahead with plans for a pricey new football operations center and indoor practice facility, paying an architect to design the project and create renderings it can use to recruit new players.

The return of head coach Greg Schiano has produced a more competitive football team but has not drawn enough fans to come close to filling its 52,000-seat stadium, even though Rutgers has hosted some nationally-ranked opponents in the Big Ten Conference. Rutgers has averaged fewer than 30,000 fans in the stadium for each home game and its season ticket sales are more than a third less than they were in the university’s second year of play in the conference.

Rutgers got $30M from Big Ten last year. After COVID testing, debt payment, what was left?

Six years after Rutgers University joined the Big Ten Conference, the school has received its first full share of the league’s revenues — but it was far from enough to get the athletics division out of the red. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic played a role in reducing revenues and increasing expenses, athletics’ debt payments alone — including $1.4 million in interest and $8 million in principal to the Big Ten — helped eat away the additional earnings.  

Rutgers athletics rang up a $73M deficit last year. Students, taxpayers were on the hook

The Rutgers University Scarlet Knight  is introduced to the crowd before he competed in the New Jersey Mascot Race sponsored by RWJBarnabas Health in West Orange on November 2, 2019.

Rutgers athletics rang up another $73 million deficit in the last fiscal year as spending reached an all-time high of $118 million amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Students and taxpayers had to cover the gap. The new numbers show Rutgers athletics received more university support in fiscal 2020-21 than any other public university in a major conference through 2019-20, going back to at least 2005.

Direct subsidies from the university to athletics more than doubled from the prior year, to $27.6 million, which includes a large loan from the university. Though student fees went down slightly during the COVID-19 pandemic, the total amount of fees, state aid and university support rose 50% over the prior fiscal year — to almost $43 million. Even with that infusion of cash, athletics reported an operating budget shortfall of more than $30 million. 

Other Big 10 schools slashed athletics spending during COVID pandemic. Rutgers did not

The Rutgers band before the Rutgers Football Scarlet-White Spring Football game on May 20, 2021 at SHI Stadium in Piscataway, NJ.

Rutgers University was the only public school in the Big Ten Conference to increase spending on athletics in the last fiscal year, during the height of the pandemic, running through more money than ever before while other schools on average slashed expenses by $25 million.

Rutgers also had the league’s largest yearly operating deficit, with a $73 million budget shortfall for the second consecutive year — a gap filled by revenue from students and taxpayers. The other 12 Big Ten public schools also showed average deficits of near $30 million last year, but all took steps to cut spending in anticipation of a loss in revenue because of the COVID pandemic.

Rutgers reported the largest increase among the Big Ten Schools in coaching salaries for the 2021 fiscal year. It did not reduce spending on administrative and support staff, while all other schools posted millions of dollars in savings in this area, according to a analysis of financial reports.

Lauded Rutgers women's basketball coach's leave neared a year, leaving players in limbo

Rutgers head coach C. Vivian Stringer smiles as she watches the video screen after Rutgers defeated Central Connecticut for her 1,000th career NCAA college basketball game win, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Piscataway, N.J.

They expected to learn from a legend. But when players on the women's basketball team arrived on the Rutgers University campus last summer to get ready for the 2021-22 season, coach C. Vivian Stringer was nowhere to be found. The players were told she would be back soon. Instead, weeks turned to months, practice began, and just a day before their season opener, the Rutgers players gathered for a message from Stringer, who told her team that she would be out for the rest of the season. Stringer’s leave began on April 19, 2021 — just nine days after she signed a new, five-year contract that guarantees her $5.6 million in base pay, as well as performance, academic and retention bonuses. She received her first $200,000 retention bonus in July 2021 — while on leave.

As debt soars, Rutgers athletics drops millions on credit cards for steaks, Disney, Broadway

Rutgers head swimming coach Jonathan Maccoll used his Rutgers travel credit card to buy tickets to two Broadway shows – Aladdin and Chicago – over the past seven months. Documents show 15 tickets were purchased for student athletes and four recruits to attend Aladdin in November.

Even as Rutgers athletics continued to rack up annual operating deficits of $73 million — covered in part by taxpayers and student tuition revenue — athletics showed little restraint as it dropped millions on credit cards to pay for Broadway shows, trips to Disney, meals at destination Manhattan restaurants and other perks for its coaches, athletes and recruits, including a luau and beach yoga at sunset in Hawaii, a guided snorkeling tour in Puerto Rico, ax throwing in Texas, luxury hotels in Paris and London, and chilled lobster, seafood towers and Delmonico steaks back home in New Brunswick.

$450K on DoorDash: Rutgers football’s lavish spending extends to meal deliveries

Football players ordered $450,000 through DoorDash from May 2021 through June of this year, according to a review of invoices and other documents obtained by

For more than a year, Rutgers University football players enjoyed a pricey perk that few other students had access to — free DoorDash food deliveries from restaurants, convenience stores and pharmacies, paid for by the university, and ultimately by taxpayers and students. And the costs piled up. 

Football players ordered more than $450,000 through DoorDash from May 2021 through June of this year, according to a review of invoices and other documents obtained by While Rutgers intended the service to provide players up to five meals for a total of $75 per week, some players rang up daily totals of $100 or more, some topping $200. One player placed three orders in Chicago on a single day totaling $200 after Rutgers had completed its football season. 

Orders were placed to retailers that don’t provide meals — including businesses that sell pet food, housewares, and flowers and gifts.  

Gator Bowl appearance was a financial bust for Rutgers. Here's why NJ taxpayers took a hit

Wake Forest Demon Deacons wide receiver A.T. Perry (9) is tackled by Rutgers Scarlet Knights defensive back Kessawn Abraham (5) during the fourth quarter Friday, Dec. 31, 2021 at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville. The Wake Forest Demon Deacons and the Rutgers Scarlet Knights faced each other in the 2021 TaxSlayer Gator Bowl. Wake Forest defeated Rutgers 38-10. [Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Union]

The Gator Bowl was scrambling for a replacement team in late December after Texas A&M had to pull out of the New Year’s Eve game because too many of its players tested positive for COVID.  But when Big Ten Conference member Rutgers University stepped up as a last-minute replacement, the Gator Bowl said it didn’t know if it had any money to pay them. 

Rutgers ultimately ended up with a $537,000 payout — not enough to cover even its airfare and less than a sixth of the cash that the Gator Bowl ultimately reported paying out, according to documents obtained by 

Rutgers athletics' gets largest share yet of BIG Ten money, but deficits remain in tens of millions

Sep 3, 2022; Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, USA; Rutgers Scarlet Knights receiver Aron Cruickshank (1) runs the ball during the first half against the Boston College Eagles at Alumni Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

For Rutgers athletics, annual operating deficits keep piling up. The cash-strapped athletics division received its largest share yet of Big Ten Conference revenue during the 2021-22 fiscal year, which just ended in June — but it is still projecting at least a $60 million budget deficit. That’s an improvement from the prior two years, when Rutgers posted record back-to-back annual operating deficits of $73 million. 

The athletics division’s $53.2 million share of Big Ten Conference revenue in 2021-22 — much of it from television — was whittled down by more than $10 million to repay two loans from the conference, leaving Rutgers with yet another sizable budget gap.  

Why is Rutgers letting its athletics division stop payments on $84M in university loans?

Rutgers quarterback Evan Simon throws a pass against Ohio State during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

The $84 million in loans that Rutgers University gave its athletics division in recent years to cover some of its losses have disappeared from athletics’ latest financial documents. A year ago, Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway told that he was considering forgiving those loans, which the university had given athletics to help pay escalating costs of playing in the Big Ten Conference.

The loans are no longer included as part of the athletic division’s total debt. And the athletics budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year doesn’t include any payment of principal or interest on those loans, which were funded by Rutgers students and New Jersey taxpayers.  A university spokeswoman said the loans had not yet been forgiven — but declined to clarify their absence from the new financial documents obtained by 

Amid debt and donations drop, Rutgers asks consultant, 'How can athletics boost revenue?'

With Rutgers athletics losing tens of millions of dollars annually — and facing a steep drop in donations this year — the university’s chief financial officer has hired an outside consulting firm to assess the division’s finances and find ways to boost revenue to better compete in the Big Ten Conference, has learned.

A draft of the report by Huron Consulting Group — which documents show will cost Rutgers as much as $200,000 — was recently delivered to J. Michael Gower, the university’s CFO. Huron brought in Jim Delany, a former Big Ten commissioner, and Kevin White, who has been athletic director at Duke University and Notre Dame, to work on the study.

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Rutgers women win Big Ten championships, but lose out to men on athletics spending

Dec 3, 2021; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Rutgers Scarlet Knights forward Frankie Tagliaferri (19) prepares to shoot as Florida State Seminoles midfielder Emily Madril (25) defends during the first half of the 2021 Women's College Cup semifinals at Stevens Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

It was a women’s team — field hockey — that earned Rutgers University its first Big Ten championship last fall. And it was a women’s team — soccer — that earned Rutgers its first Big Ten regular season conference banner. But when it comes to financial support from the university, Rutgers women’s teams are consistently losing out to the men’s teams.

The women’s success comes despite the fact that Rutgers spends far more on men’s teams in multiple categories, from travel and equipment to recruiting and coaches' salaries — even when you take football head coach Greg Schiano’s $32 million contract out of the accounting.

Rutgers athletics, operating with deficits, needs immediate fiscal oversight — Editorial

While it should be up to Rutgers' president, Jonathan Holloway, and its board of trustees to rein in athletics spending, the university has chosen to bridge the gap with loans — some of which Holloway has said he is considering forgiving. We strongly encourage Holloway to choose a more responsible path forward and lead an internal inquiry to resolve what appears to be freewheeling spending of New Jersey taxpayers' dollars.

And certainly, Rutgers officials could and should undertake a thorough review of its credit card policies — particularly as they pertain to athletics spending. Ultimately, though, change may have to be produced through inquiries from the Legislature and beyond.