Call Me Maybe: Maryland and Rutgers Talking to the Big Ten

What started off as a few rumors on random local radio shows earlier this week has turned into full-blown national news: the Big Ten is speaking with Maryland and Rutgers and could be expanding as soon as next week.

As Dan Wetzel pointed on in his column on the latest news, this isn’t a no-brainer move for the Big Ten on the level of adding Nebraska (or schools such as Notre Dame or Texas).  However, I believe that it ultimately makes sense overall (especially the addition of Maryland).  The timing of the move is a bit curious just as I was surprised by the timing of the SEC adding Texas A&M (and subsequently Missouri) last year, but the additions of Maryland and Rutgers fit what Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany stated was one of the long-term objectives of the conference’s original expansion exploration announced three years ago: making sure that the Big Ten keeps up with the changing demographics of the United States for next several decades. There is only going to be so much growth in the Big Ten’s base of the Midwest (although the “decline” of the region is often overstated by many non-Midwesterners that often just think of the classic Rust Belt images in Michigan and Ohio while ignoring the fact that the Chicago, Minneapolis and Indianapolis areas have more diverse economies and are growing well population-wise), so that can affect the long-term attractiveness of the conference’s members in recruiting all types of students, whether athletes or valedictorians.

To be sure, it also doesn’t hurt to have a massive amount of potential television revenue tacked on from the Big Ten Network getting onto basic cable in the Washington/Baltimore and New York City media markets.  This is certainly where Maryland clearly adds financial value to the conference: there is no doubt in my mind that the Terrapins have enough pull to get the BTN into homes in their home state plus DC (and probably Northern Virginia on top of that).  While I agree with Wetzel that Washington is a pro sports town, it’s more of a place like Chicago (another pro sports city) where, with the addition of Maryland, there will be enough of a critical mass of Big Ten grads for the conference to claim that market for TV purposes.  Plus, while there has been so much focus on football in conference realignment because that’s what the national TV networks such as ESPN and Fox are throwing out massive contracts for, basketball is actually fairly important to the BTN specifically in terms of leverage against cable operators for basic carriage.  As a result, Maryland’s strong basketball program and fan base are key factors here despite some struggles on football field for the past few years.

The risk for the Big Ten is more with the addition of Rutgers.  Obviously, there’s enormous potential value in having a large public institution that plays directly in the New York City metro area.  That market has been the Holy Grail for several difference conferences, but that’s because it has been so tough to crack.  In sheer numbers, the NYC area has a large number of Big Ten grads along with legions of Rutgers alums, but percentage-wise, there is nowhere near the market penetration that Illinois and Northwestern plus the other Big Ten schools provide for the Chicago market or USC and UCLA plus the other Pac-12 schools provide for the Los Angeles market.  As a result, I tend to agree more with Wetzel’s line of thinking with respect to Rutgers more than Maryland.

What the Big Ten is banking on is that the combination of Rutgers, Penn State, Maryland and Michigan (along with bringing in marquee schools such as Ohio State and Nebraska into town) is going to drive interest for the casual sports fan in New York and New Jersey.  Jim Delany and the powers that be in the Big Ten must have finally gotten comfortable with the belief that this combo is going to work or else they wouldn’t be pulling the trigger on the move.  This is a conference that doesn’t take chances with its membership ranks because it doesn’t need to.

As a pure football move, Maryland and Rutgers won’t move the meter like Nebraska, but I’d say that from a market value perspective, this is a better expansion than the ACC with Syracuse and Pitt (the non-football addition of Notre Dame is a different comparison) and the Pac-12 with Utah and Colorado.  The SEC got the best combo of on-the-field football value and off-the-field market with Texas A&M (while Missouri, which has a good market itself, got the benefit of being school #14 for a league that needed another school that wouldn’t take away revenue).

Some other thoughts:

  • There have been few non-ACC people that have argued about the strength of the ACC off-the-field more than I have over the past couple of years, so that’s why I was very hesitant to jump full-bore on Maryland to the Big Ten rumors that started earlier this week.  This was a move that myself and many other conference realignment aficionados had long thought was possible and looked good on paper, but questioned how willing Maryland was going to be in leaving a stable conference that it founded.
  • The $50 million exit fee that the ACC instituted back in September when Notre Dame joined as a non-football member is certainly a deterrent for Maryland to leave, but we have learned in conference realignment that no one has ever turned down a conference upgrade because of an exit fee.  These types of exit penalties inevitably get negotiated down to lower figures.  At the same time, it’s doubtful that Maryland (whose athletic department is about as solvent as Greece) will have to pay that exit fee out-of-pocket.  The Big Ten might front some of that money and deduct an amount from Maryland’s conference earnings for several years.  (This is what the Big 12 is doing with West Virginia.)  So, $50 million might sound like a lot, but the reality is (1) that number will likely end up being much lower and (2) someone other than Maryland itself is probably going to be paying a lot of that in the beginning.
  • What I didn’t ever buy was the popular fan-based thought that Maryland wouldn’t join the Big Ten because it was a “basketball school”.  Please take a look at the top 5 of both the AP and coaches polls this week for evidence about how asinine of a position that is when looking at conference decisions.  At the same time, unless you’re a legit basketball blue blood (Duke, UNC, Kentucky, Indiana, Kansas and UCLA), the best way to have a top tier basketball program in the modern era is to have a massive amount of football revenue to pay for it.  Florida, Ohio State and Texas have shown the way on this front over the past several years and the trend is only going to increase further with the latest moves in conference realignment.  To paraphrase what Jim Calhoun stated a couple of years ago, the best decision for your school’s athletic department is whatever is the best decision is for your school’s football program.
  • Speaking of Jim Calhoun, the athletic department that he largely brought to prominence at UConn will likely end up being the largest beneficiary out of the Big Ten’s expansion outside of Maryland and Rutgers themselves.  UConn is unequivocally next in line to get an invite into the ACC, so if Maryland really does end up leaving one spot open there, it’s there for the taking by the Huskies.  The only way that UConn doesn’t end up in the ACC at this point is if the Big Ten pulls an even greater surprise and takes two ACC schools, in which case I could see that conference staying at 12 all-sports members.
  • On the flip side, Louisville is probably the school most damaged by this Big Ten expansion.  When looking purely at the Cardinals athletic department, there is no doubt that it belongs in a power conference.  However, the academic requirements of the Big Ten and ACC have always meant that they would never seriously consider Louisville, while the SEC has never had much incentive to add that school since it already has that state covered by the University of Kentucky.  Louisville essentially has to hope that the Big 12 is going to get skittish with this latest move by the Big Ten and that they can’t stand pat at 10 members.  From a personal standpoint, I believe that Louisville deserves better because that athletic department has truly done everything right over the past few years.

All in all, Maryland and Rutgers going to the Big Ten is a solid off-the-field move for the conference in the long-term even if it won’t be sexy on-the-field (outside of lacrosse) in the short-term.  For the rest of the college sports world, conference realignment chaos is back in effect.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

(Image from WBAL)