University of Maryland President Wallace Loh made a ridiculous claim during Monday’s press conference announcing the school’s decision to become the Big Ten’s 13th member. Loh said leaving the ACC for the Big Ten “will ensure the financial vitality of Maryland Athletics for decades to come.” Anyone who offers you economic projections about five years from now—much less 50—is blowing smoke. If nothing else, the ongoing realignment of college football should teach everyone that there’s no long term anymore, only the ever-changing present.
Maryland’s athletic department mismanaged itself to the point where it had to drop eight non-revenue sports. That was foremost on the mind of Loh and Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson on Monday, when they vowed that some of the money from their Big Ten bailout would go towards restoring those sports, as well as provide additional non-athletic scholarships to students with financial need. Never forget that colleges are non-profit, mostly government-run institutions. As such, they judge success based on how many resources they consume. Maryland joined the Big Ten first and foremost so they could resume its previous malinvestment.
Rutgers, expected to be named the Big Ten’s 14th member on Tuesday, is in a similar situation. Rutgers has received over $115 million in subsidies since 2006 for its athletic department. At least the Scarlet Knights have enjoyed some football success in the depleted Big East. Maryland, in contrast, has been a poor-to-mediocre football team in an ACC that defines poor-to-mediocre football.
The Big Ten’s addition of Maryland and Rutgers appears, at first glance, to be the equivalent of the European Union adding two more Greece-like countries. Neither program adds much to the Big Ten as a football product. The only economic argument is that adding two schools in the Boston-Washington corridor makes the Big Ten Network more attractive to cable systems. But this remains speculation. The Big Ten should recall the NFL Network’s decade-long struggle to get on New York’s Time Warner Cable—and Rutgers is far less attractive to New Yorkers than the Giants or Jets.
Conference realignment is really about short-term politics, not long-term finances. Maryland wanted out of the ACC for the same reason Texas A&M wanted out of the Big 12: Both programs felt undervalued by their existing peers. Maryland was a founding member of the ACC, yet politically it was overshadowed by the conference’s four North Carolina schools. The ACC’s recent additions of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame further relegated Maryland to the status of afterthought.
Athletics is ultimately an advertising expense for colleges. Conference affiliations are a mechanism for defining a university’s perception and identity. Maryland and Rutgers both coveted Big Ten mebership as a symbol of their growth and importance. Maryland’s Loh went to great lengths Monday to emphasize the academic reputation of the Big Ten’s members. Many in the sports media dismiss this as window dressing, but it’s important to understand that all universities operate in a hyper-competitive environment for students, faculty and research dollars. There’s enormous value to Maryland and Rutgers just living in the same neighborhood as other major public research universities like Ohio State and Indiana—even if it doesn’t produce substantially better results on the football field.
From the Big Ten’s perspective, the conference is in a race with the Pac-12 for second place in the college football landscape. Once the SEC went to 14 members, there was no way the Big Ten would stand pat at 12. Clearly, Notre Dame was the Big Ten’s longstanding choice for No. 13. When the ACC finally won the Irish prize, Big Ten officials moved to Plan B, which revolved around Maryland. While neither Maryland nor Rutgers excites the core football fan, they are both credible programs with no recent history of NCAA sanctions. With the Big Ten’s two top programs, Penn State and Ohio State, sidelined by probation, that’s more important in the short term than either school’s ability to win a national championship in the next 50 years.
Inevitably, each conference shift increases the speculation about the next move. There’s already rumors of the SEC expanding to 16 by raiding the ACC for Virginia Tech and North Carolina State. The problem is that NCAA scheduling rules make any expansion past 14 a logistical challenge. With eight-team divisions, the SEC would likely go to nine conference games (over the strenuous objections of the coaches) and eliminate the guarantee games against FCS-level opponents. The SEC might also have to reconsider its informal policy of not adding schools in states with existing members. Florida State and Clemson would be far more attractive additions than Virginia Tech or North Carolina State, yet Florida and South Carolina would scream bloody murder at the suggestion.
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