You'd be hard-pressed to be find more of a hot-button topic than conference realignment right now. Yes, part of that has to do with the fact that there's nothing else going on in college athletics to cover it up, but we may be seeing a cataclysmic change the likes of which have never been seen in the NCAA.
No longer does all the controversy center around the Big Ten (the Pac-10 and MWC have both made their moves), but they're still the 800-pound gorilla in the room. It's been speculated - and sometimes a little more than speculated - that if they decide to expand to 16 teams to match the Pac-10, Maryland will be a major target for expansion.
With little else to discuss, its been this potential - and the rest of conference realignment - that has dominated discussion around these parts. Unsurprisingly, it has generated a ton of debate, with each side citing their own special brand of arguments.
For convenience's sake, I decided to try to summarize the arguments and backing of both sides, the pros and cons of the situation, in one post. Even though I'm sure plenty of you already know my stance, I tried to remain as unbiased as possible, because I'm becoming more neutral by the day. I apologize if I didn't include your argument of choice; let me know and I'll add it. Also, I don't necessarily believe everything I've written down here.
Into the rabbit hole:
*BTW - We have some stuff coming up in the near future to at least take some of the focus off expansion. Apologies for focusing on it so heavily lately.
Maryland is a public university with a relatively small endowment ($400m). They're hardly a revenue powerhouse, in the middle of the pack in the ACC in both football and basketball revenue. UMD was 41st overall in 2008, which is good but hardly great and a far cry from the Michigans and Ohio States of the world. The basketball program is one of the more valuable in the country, but is often outearned, even by lesser programs like Oklahoma State. To make matters worse, Maryland is one of the few schools that sponsors as many as 27 athletic teams. That's great for a variety of reasons, but also stretches the (already average) resources rather thin.
In short, UMD doesn't exactly have a fortune to spend on athletics. This manifests itself in a variety of ways. The decision to keep Ralph Friedgen was likely influenced by economics. Maryland's men's basketball assistants are paid peanuts. Byrd Stadium is unspectacular and all expansion efforts to it haven't fixed that. Gripes about having to take buses instead of planes were all too common last year as budgets were cut tighter and tighter.
One of the biggest money producers for any athletic department is the payout they get from their conference. The ACC, by virtue of their previously poor and now average TV deal and lack of success in football, has lagged behind most other conferences (except the Big East) in revenue. Thus, they also lag behind in payout. Quite frankly, unless you're Duke, UNC, or Syracuse, football is almost a necessity to succeed. Football stadiums hold an extra 30,000 people (or more) and games receive generally much higher ratings than basketball games, probably due to the fact that people, on the whole, like football a lot more than basketball.
Even for Maryland, which is a basketball school through-and-through, gets more money from their mediocre football program than they do from basketball. Needless to say, football is where the money comes from.
All of that was just a precursory explanation for this: the Big Ten earns a lot of dough. Much, much more than the ACC, in fact. In 2008, Big Ten schools earned $550mil in the two biggest revenue sports, football and men's basketball; the same year, the ACC's teams grossed $372mil in those same sports. Each team from the Big Ten gets roughly $22mil annually, which is "the envy of every conference" outside of the SEC and assuredly larger than the ACC's own payout. Shockingly, that number could double through expansion if it breaks right, shooting up to $40mil. That's not a small chunk of change, especially when you consider that the B10 could double in revenue if expansion goes as planned.
That's not a small chunk of change. The benefits should be obvious. Football and basketball would have more money to spend on recruiting, coaches, facilities, and just about whatever they darn well please. As a nice little bonus, the 27 team ideal could be retained, which has been a priority of the department for quite some time.
Any argument that is made about the Big Ten and Maryland has to - or at the very least should - center around the economic benefits of making the move and their relative merits against the reasons to stay. We'll get to all that later.
The Potential Football Bump
Part of this probably has to do with the previous point, which is at the center of the argument. But the Big Ten figures to offer its own inherent benefits to the football program (or not; again, we'll get to that later).
For one, Byrd Stadium will be packed several times a year. Sure, half of them may be takeovers by hostile fans, but as long as Maryland is going to be average at football they might as well sell tickets. The more tickets that are sold, again, the better it is for Maryland. More tickets equates to more revenue, which equates to more money to spend on the football team to make them less embarrassing.
Not to mention that plenty of football recruits want to play in the Big Ten the way basketball recruits want to play in the ACC. Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State are far easier sells than Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and FSU, especially to anyone not tied to the South. Ohio State and Penn State, after all, have raided Maryland for years. There are plenty of reasons for that, but it's notable that they're both Big Ten teams, not, say, SEC squads, which rarely venture North.
It generally holds that the better competition a team faces, the better they'll do over the long haul. Illinois and Northwestern occasionally get to bowls and have grabbed some very good recruits over the years. It wasn't long ago that Purdue was a contender, and Iowa makes themselves known every once and awhile. Indiana is arguably the only doormat of the league, but even they were relevant a few years ago.
The first few years, when the adjustments are being made, may be difficult, But it's very possible that the football program would be stronger after a decade in the Big Ten than it is right now in the ACC. Everything traces back to money, and the Big Ten would give a lot more of it.
A Real Rival
Duke has UNC. Virginia has Virginia Tech. Maryland may hate both of these schools, but they're hardly rivals in the truest sense of the word. A real rivalry has to be mutual, and neither of those are, at all. Neither side likes each other, but both Duke and UVA have other teams to hate more. Maryland doesn't.
Except, maybe, Penn State. PSU is an old rival, but they haven't played in forever. Like Maryland, Penn State lacks a rival that shares their feelings: Ohio State has Michigan and Pitt has West Virginia. Both teams are rival-less, yet are nearly perfect matches: border states, run into each other on the recruiting trail, fans have an irrational dislike for each other. Perfect match.
A move to the Big Ten would involve playing Penn State every year, or at least quite a bit. I wouldn't be surprised to see a rivalry pop up out of that, which would be great for the fans and may be able to be exploited financially, too.
Yes, academics. Economics are the real reason for expansion and every team's desire of it, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Academics likely play a minor role in any motive, but there can still be positive side effects. The biggest of those side effects would come in academics.
The Big Ten carries not only an athletic connotation, but an academic one. Schools have bragged about being a "Big Ten research institution", and even though the ACC has a similar number of great universities, the Big Ten has a much greater reputation.
Maryland is quickly rising up the academic food chain in the world, transforming themselves from average to one of the best public institutions in the country in a very short period of time (relatively), but they still lack the reputation of a world-class education (outside of a few select programs, like criminology and journalism). An association with the Big Ten, and its academic counterpart the CIC, may alter that view. For the Board of Regents and President of the University, whomever it may be, that's well worth examining. After all, their job is to make the University provide as good of an education as possible.
Getting Out of Dodge
This is a stretch, admittedly, and can only truly be examined if a certain few events happen. Mainly, the ACC would need to be raided by another conference, and perhaps the logical replacements (Pitt and Syracuse) to be gone or turn down ACC invitations.
Think of it this way: the SEC is looking like they won't try to raid the ACC as it stands, but we all know that the attitudes around expansion change daily. If they decide to expand and Texas A&M or Oklahoma isn't enough or doesn't comply, then it's likely that Miami, Florida State, Clemson, Virginia Tech, or Georgia Tech would be major targets. It's also likely that at least one of them would jump at the potential of a lot more money and avoiding a potential ACC collapse. For the sake of discussion, let's say FSU and VT jumped ship to the SEC.
If that happened, the ACC just would lose two of its biggest revenue-producers in its most economically successful sport, football (we already went over this - the ACC may be a "basketball conference", but football is still where money is made). If, for whatever reason, Syracuse, Pitt, and perhaps UConn aren't the replacement members, the ACC will be looking mighty bleak. West Virginia? USF? ECU? The ACC would not be nearly as attractive as they are right now for TV deals and would likely produce less revenue. That means a smaller payout per school, and we already discussed finances.
At that point, of course, it's highly likely that the Big Ten - potentially Maryland's best option if the ACC disintegrated, ala the Big XII - would be done with expansion. Maryland, meanwhile, would be stuck in a tradition-filled conference that was economically untenable. The argument of people who accept this position is that Maryland would be well served to get out the ACC while they still can and avoid a potential disaster scenario, perhaps a merger with the Big East or a status as the weakest of the SuperConferences.
Hey, if any of that goes down, Maryland would have essentially switched conferences anyway.
The ACC Itself
A lot of people love the ACC, and with good reason (reasons we'll get to later). But quite a few people find plenty of legitimate gripes with the conference, too. Its historical bias in Maryland officiating, for example, whether it's imagined or real. Its probably real bias toward Tobacco Road schools. The recent botched expansion attempt and unwillingness to expand itself. The belief that Maryland is treated unfairly and isolated due to its "Northern" status.
Whatever the reason, the ACC isn't a perfect conference. Clinging to it for beliefs of tradition may be clinging to a group that is doing Maryland harm, not good. And if you don't like the ACC, for whatever reason, you certainly feel no obligation to remain a part of it. Right?
If you seriously value tradition, the entire above section might've meant nothing to you. Because, quite simply, Maryland and the ACC are tightly wound into each others' fabric. There is no ACC without Maryland. Seriously: they were a founding member. And bonds like that are tough to break.
It's the conference in which Maryland won their first and only basketball national championship. It's the conference in which almost every single Maryland fan grew up. It's the conference in which Lefty Driesell attempted to make Maryland the UCLA of the East. It's the conference in which Maryland played in the greatest game of college basketball ever. I could go on, but I won't. In short, it's the conference in which everything great that Maryland has ever done actually did. And that's worth plenty.
Jeff Barker likened abandoning the ACC to leaving a company you've been a part of for a very long time. You're losing familiarity, tradition, and sense of loyalty. Yet to true diehards to this argument, it may be even more. Maryland would perhaps be abandoning a part of itself, leaving behind its family members in favor of a little more dough and a bunch of vague uncertainties about academics and a slightly better football team.
Leaving Behind Duke, UNC, UVA, etc.
This is similar to the above point. Ask yourself this: would Maryland's basketball season be the same without Duke and UNC (and UVA, to a lesser extent) to look forward to? Even if those aren't true rivalries or anything close to it, they're still games every Maryland fan circles on the calendar and looks forward to.
Our second-biggest day of traffic ever (behind the John Calipari Facebook impersonator) was when Maryland beat Duke this year. There are a ton of reasons for that, but the biggest, by far, is that it was Duke. Nothing fires up a Maryland fan like beating Duke. Who could forget Vasquez knocking down that runner with time running down? Or what about Boom Osby's diving layup to top UNC a few years back? These memories are amazing, and leaving the ACC would not only be leaving them behind; it would also leave behind the potential for them to happen on a regular basis in the future.
Who else will provide that date-circling incentive for Maryland in the Big Ten? Michigan State? Indiana? Penn State? Will beating them make you riot?
It's definitely possible that Maryland's football program would receive a serious boost by Big Ten membership. It's also possible, maybe more possible, that being a part of the Big Ten would nearly permanently relegate them to bottom-feeder status.
Going up against Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and maybe Notre Dame on a somewhat regular basis? Can Maryland truly be expected to win a conference with those four teams in it? Even if the Terps do get a major boost in revenue and use it to transform themselves into a better team, what're the odds that they'll be able to outdo those traditional powerhouses? Likely slim to none.
Oh, and football recruiting has shifted full-force to the South. Joining a northern conference may not be the way to go if the future is what we're watching.
The ACC plays fun, up-tempo, attractive basketball. They're also traditionally the best basketball conference, and were probably the best last season. Despite people calling the ACC weak far too often, the actual stats still have them at the top of the conference basketball food chain. Recruits commit to ACC schools because of the conference they play in (sometimes).
The Big Ten? Not so much. Their games are defensive slugfests, knockdown, dragout fights with a significantly slower tempo than the ACC. Oh, and besides the Pac-10, they're arguably the weakest basketball conference in the NCAA. Almost no one says "I committed to ____ because I was really attracted to playing in the Big Ten."
Maryland, by the way, is a basketball school. Ask basically anyone. A rather large drop-off in the sport that is far and away the favorite for fans is almost never a good idea.
That's not to say that everything about basketball would ultimately go down the drain if Maryland joined the Big Ten. Michigan State, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio State, and Purdue are all quality programs. But a chance remains that it would not be an equal program, even if fellow basketball schools like Pitt and Syracuse joined up.
Bye-Bye, Fun Roadtrips
Want to go to an away game? If Maryland's in the ACC, that's not that bad; just drive down to UVA, VT, or UNC. If Maryland's in the Big Ten, forget about it. Looking to drive to Michigan, Indiana, or Illinois? In the dead of winter? Even Penn State is filled with cold and snow over the winter.
This, of course, also brings up the very obvious geographic problems. Maryland isn't a Midwestern school, and being paired with a bunch of Midwestern schools (plus Rutgers, maybe) makes very little geographic sense. This is college athletics, and conferences are supposed to be based on geography. This argument may seem nostalgic and out-of-date, especially with Colorado in the Pac-10, but it's still applicable. There's a chance that Maryland will be the redheaded Eastern step-child of the Big Ten the same way they're the redheaded Northern step-child of the ACC. The more geographic sense a conference makes, the more likely it is to be cohesive.
Is one side right? It'll be a very long time before we ever know for certain. Both sides have compelling points, even if it ultimately seems to boil down to finances vs. emotion. For the record, neither of those are bad. Money makes the world go round. Emotion is what makes it worth experiencing.
The only think we know for certain is that the next several months will be very interesting.