clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Maryland's probably going to the Big Ten. But why?

It's not official, but Maryland's move to the Big Ten has gained serious traction in the last few days, leading many fans to question the move. We explain the motivation.

We are the Vandals at the gates of Greensboro, sacking the Carolinian Empire and kickstarting its slow, decadent demise.
We are the Vandals at the gates of Greensboro, sacking the Carolinian Empire and kickstarting its slow, decadent demise.

A mere 48 hours ago, you and I and everyone else was happy and safe in our comfortable little ACC cocoon. Now the world has been turned upside down. And in just another 48 hours or so, the University of Maryland very well may be the newest Big Ten school.

It's a move that has a lot of fans scratching their heads. Some are downright indignant at the thought. And a few are flabbergasted when they meet a fellow fan who actually supports the move, as my Twitter mentions could tell you. Yes, I am one of those proponents, and have been for years now. Allow me to explain myself, and potentially why Maryland's administrators view this move as an attractive one.

Before that, though, two notes that deserve mentioning. First: I'm not saying this is the only proper way to view the move. Whether or not the move is "worth it" will depend on how much you value certain things, which itself depends on your perspective. I'm not claiming moral superiority here; I understand, in large part, those who disagree with me (and the University), and I begrudge no one their opinion. But the benefits of the move deserve more publicity.

Second: for full disclosure, I live in the Midwest. It's not so bad, honest, but I was in favor of a move before moving out this way.

Right then. With that out of the way: there are three big, big reasons this makes sense (and is actually a good thing) for Maryland.

Reason #1: finances.

Maryland is broke. Everyone knows this by now. The financial straits are dire. The debt is towering. The athletic department had to cut eight sports in 2011 simply to return the department to viability by 2019(!), and even that was only seen as viable if the basketball and football programs came to life and started generating some attendance. Basketball? Check. Football? Uh ... not so much. That being the case, there is legitimate concern over the long-term fiscal health of Maryland athletics.

The Big Ten, by contrast, is the collegiate equivalent of Scrooge McDuck's money bath. They paid out about $24 million to each of their teams last season, first in the country, comfortably above the ACC's paltry $16 million generated from their new TV deal. The new conference will not turn Maryland into a football powerhouse or lead to a huge increase in attendance, but it will pay out a lot more money than the ACC did. And once the TV sets in the Maryland and Rutgers areas are factored in, that number should leap even higher - some have speculated it could push $30mil.

Given Maryland's financial problems, this amount of money is not chump change. Maryland's overall budget last year was only $57mil itself, after all; adding another $7-to-$10mil in revenue would be a foundational, radical change to the department. Cynics say this would go toward ego: bigger weight rooms, redeveloped A.D. offices, things that don't really matter. But with Maryland, a department well and truly on the brink, trying to pay off massive debt, shedding programs just to retain long-term viability, I doubt it. Given their situation, this is the type of money that means improving facilities instead of cutting sports, hiring elite coaches instead of settling, cutting coaches loose instead of holding on due to an inability to pay their buyouts. It means hiring better academic support for student-athletes and giving them facilities on par with the nation's elite, instead of cutting back even further on Maryland's last-in-the-ACC per-student spending and 79th nationally per-student support staff.

It means programs with a much better probability of success and it means a higher quality-of-life for student-athletes. It means flexibility instead of uncertainty.

I won't make out like there isn't an alternative. Should Maryland find success in football and basketball simultaneously, while continuing to get their house in order, they could be just fine in the ACC. But the road back is a lot quicker, less risky, easier, and more comfortable in the Big Ten.

Nor will I make out like there aren't caveats when it comes to the financial situation despite the switch. Maryland will have to pay out quite a lot of money - doubtfully $50mil, but still a fairly large number - to exit the ACC. (More on that in a bit.) On top of that, they wouldn't receive full TV revenues immediately - Nebraska has to wait until 2017, until which time they're receiving $14mil, still more than they received with the Big 12. (I assume Maryland would receive a similar assurance.) It may not fix everything right away, but it ensures that, even if things don't go perfectly elsewhere, there's a comfortable, sustainable future for Maryland athletics.

People - including Len Elmore, who has had a disappointingly simple take on the whole thing - are making out like Maryland has dollar signs in its eyes and are just chasing money. That's horribly cynical. This is not Texas A&M looking to add more to their money piles, or Mizzou and Colorado satisfying their inflated opinions of self-worth. Maryland is in fiscal hell right now. Their programs will hurt and already have hurt because of it. The Big Ten is an avenue out of that hell, and there should be no shame in taking it.

On that note, if you really oppose the move and want a villan, your best target is probably not Brit Kirwan or Wallace Loh but instead Debbie Yow, who helped get Maryland into this mess with dodgy money mismanagement. If Maryland was standing on stronger financial ground, they have a much stronger argument to stay put.

Reason #2: academics.

Elmore says this is just a throwaway and a smokescreen for the financial side of it. Not for me, though: I'm blatantly obvious about the finances, but it's still obvious that the academics do matter. The Committee on Institutional Cooperation - more commonly known as the CIC - is the academic arm of the Big Ten, virtually the only one of its kind and a hugely prestigious, important cooperative body. Member schools pool resources, share faculty and infrastructure, cooperate in landing government research grants, and enjoy a nice little reputation bump. It's been a not insignificant factor in the rise of Penn State in the past few decades, without a shadow of a doubt.

Is it a primary motivating factor for a school like Maryland? No. Money is. Is it a very pleasant secondary motivating factor? Yes. Maryland continues to grow as an elite public institution, and something like this would only help to enhance the services they provide to current students as well as increase their reputation. It's a factor that will be very attractive to administrators like Wallace Loh and Brit Kirwan, plus those on the Board of Regents, as it well should be.

Reason #3: stability.

The ACC, despite adding Syracuse, Pitt, and half of Notre Dame, never truly stabilized. With the conference securing a merely average TV deal despite giving away third-tier rights, the likes of FSU and Clemson never bought into the idea entirely, as either fanbase will tell you. FSU in particular never stopped looking longingly at the Big 12. If Maryland was willing to make a run at leaving the conference, despite the hefty exit fee, would you put it past one of those two to do the same in the future? And were either to leave - or, Juan forbid, both - the ACC's brand and financial clout would be hugely, cripplingly undercut.

At that point, finances would become a problem in the ACC. The conference would be on its way to becoming the New Big East, and that's something that Maryland, in its precarious position, could ill afford. If the Big Ten had already expanded with different members, it would be a full-on disaster scenario. Maryland is being proactive, securing its place in one of the three premier conferences in the country, one of the very few that can confidently say it'll be around in 15 years and still be a force. (Being made up of ridiculously huge schools and fanbases will do that for a conference.)

I'm not saying the ACC will necessarily fall apart - far from it, in fact, although now that Maryland's leaving there's at least a chance of it. FSU, for sure, will be watching closely to see what happens with the exit fee. But the point is that there was always a risk of it happening, something that Maryland probably couldn't afford. That risk isn't present at all in the Big Ten. They claimed their seat at the grown-up table while it was still there.


These three points are more or less matters of record. It's nigh-inarguable that Maryland will make more money in the Big Ten through TV revenue over the long-term, that they will reap academic benefits not enjoyed in the ACC, and that they will find themselves in a vastly more stable situation. You can say you don't care about these things, but it's very difficult to say they aren't true. And they're probably the three most important things to any collegiate administrator, who have a duty to view any potential move with the good of the entire university in mind. That's why the move is being made, and that's why it makes sense.

I'm not thick, though; there are objections to it, some completely legitimate, some less so. These are mitigating factors more than genuine counterpoints, though, so how much they actually matter depend on how much they're valued. And sorry to say, but the administrators probably value them less than you do. Let's do a quick run-through:

Objection #1: Isn't the $50mil exit fee prohibitive?

Well, no, it's clearly not prohibitive, given that it did little to prohibit Maryland from leaving the conference. It is, however, needlessly punitive, and Loh has long believed that it wouldn't hold up in court. He's likely received some measure of reinforcement on that mark. The ACC would have some incentive to settle if it wasn't confident about winning in court, and the general consensus is that Maryland will pay a substantially lower figure than $50mil. Are we talking $20mil-substantially-lower or $40mil-substantially-lower? I don't know. But the people making the decision do, or at least know more than we do, and they still see it as a financially prudent move. That gives me a mark of confidence.

Objection #2: But what about A) travel and B) geographical consideration?

I put these together since they're inherently related. And yes, some of the travel is unfortunate. ACC schools, including the additions of Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame, are an average distance of 455 miles away from College Park, averaging about an 8 hour trip by car. The Big Ten, including Rutgers, is about an extra two hundred miles, averaging 665 (and about 11 hours by car). So you're unlikely to be making road trips to every away game.

Thing is, how many easily road-trippable games are there right now? Virginia and Pitt are easily done; then again, so are Rutgers and Penn State in the Big Ten. Everything past that in the ACC pushes five hours, something that is doable but sufficiently long enough that, if we're being honest, not that many will do it. (Ohio State is a similar situation in the Big Ten.) The difference between road tripping to Clemson or Boston College and Michigan or Michigan State isn't drastic.

As for travel expenses for non-revenues, I would expect that the Big Ten would rejigger their divisions to see a more sensible geographical break, with the likes of Penn State, Ohio State, Maryland, and Rutgers all in the same division to cut down on unnecessary travel. And as I mentioned above, don't forget that the current seasonal trips to Miami, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Tallahassee, and Miami are hardly short travels themselves. The travel expenses will doubtfully increase to an unsustainable margin, and will largely be compensated for by the added revenue elsewhere.

As for geography, again, I think the difference is less than it appears at first. For an example: Maryland is less a geographical outlier in the New Big Ten than Florida State is in the New ACC. No, really. But very few were up in arms and complaining that their souls were being sold because Florida State (or Syracuse, etc.) was in the conference.

I suspect this is due to branding. Florida State is an Atlantic Coast school (kind of), whereas the Big Ten has, in the past, marketed itself as the Midwest's Conference. But those days are dead. The ACC has added a school in Indiana; the Big Ten, meanwhile, has begun to reposition itself not as the premier Midwestern conference, but as the premier Northern conference. It's less about the middle of the country nowadays as about the entire northern half of the east, and that is a category Maryland fits easily.

I'm not trying to convince you that these are positives. I'm trying to convince you that they're not as big of deals as you probably think at first, and probably aren't enough to outweigh the huge benefits found in the Big Ten elsewhere.

Objection #3: Maryland doesn't really fit in culturally with the other schools.

I'd actually argue that point. Maryland, back in 1960 when the ACC was created, was undoubtedly a southern school that fit in with UNC, Wake Forest, and the rest. Since then, though, the Mid-Atlantic has more and more taken claim to its culture, a culture distinctly northern and at odds with the Tobaccah Road tradition of the conference. The University itself is its state's premier institution, a large land-grant public in an urban environment with a very large enrollment. How many other ACC schools fit that profile? Literally none. (No, State is not Carolina's "premier institution.") By comparison, a host of Big Ten schools - Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio State, now Rutgers - share all of those characteristics, and virtually every school shares most of them.

And if you think Maryland doesn't fit in because they're a basketball school, Indiana, Michigan State, and Illinois say hi.

Objection #4: Isn't the Big Ten a weaker non-revenue conference? And won't that hurt our stronger non-revenues?

No. There are some areas they're weaker, like in men's soccer, say, or lacrosse. But they're much, much stronger in wrestling - one of Maryland's premier sports - and volleyball, among others. And let's be honest: the drop is not nearly drastic enough in those non-revs to make you seriously rethink the change. For soccer, Indiana is a historical powerhouse, and Michigan was in the semis of the College Cup just a few years ago. For lacrosse, Maryland is a big enough power to survive on its own in lacrosse, if needs be - see Hopkins - until Minnesota or Michigan State joins the civilized folk and starts a varsity lax program and gets the Big Ten to sponsor the sport. The minimal downticks in those programs are compensated for by the huge boost wrestling and other programs would receive. It is, at worst, a wash.

Objection #5: It's a worse basketball conference.

Historically, yes. But the future of Duke is in doubt after K, and the likes of Wake Forest and Georgia Tech have exited the scene as respectable hoops programs. The Big Ten, meanwhile, has been the strongest conference in basketball for the past two years, and is again right now. Michigan, Ohio State, and Indiana are all top-five teams at the moment - three of the top five! - and Michigan State and Wisconsin are forces to be reckoned with in their own right. If you add Maryland to that mix, you have six hands-down top-25 programs, plus solid teams in Purdue, Minnesota, and Illinois. If that conference doesn't match or exceed the ACC's UNC, Duke, State, Syracuse, and Pitt power base it comes darn close. The drop in quality, if there is one at all, is quite frankly minimal.

Objection #6: Football will just become a doormat.

Northwestern has won three Big Ten titles since 1995. Illinois and Purdue have gone to Rose Bowls since the turn of the century; Michigan State and Iowa have won title shares in the past few years. And we're saying there's absolutely no way Maryland can conceivably compete?

Maryland football will be the same as it is ever was. Its future doesn't depend on which conference they're in, but instead on improving their coaching and continuing to recruit the area. If they do that, they'll be successful in the Big Ten, just like they'd be successful in the ACC. If not, they wouldn't be successful in either conference. It's hardly out of the realm of imagination for Maryland to be a respectable program in the Big Ten. In fact, the presence of Ohio State and Michigan in the conference should actually make recruiting traditional Maryland power alleys of western Maryland and Pennsylvania that much easier.

Objection #7: The style of play is so boring.

Three words for you: Tony Bennett's Virginia. Or: Mike Brey's Notre Dame. Or: Jamie Dixon's Pitt. Or Jim Boeheim's zone. The New ACC is hardly the bastion of basketball aesthetics. Meanwhile, the Big Ten's tempo has increased each season, to the point where the average Big Ten team ran faster than Kentucky last season. And through a few weeks of the season - too early for tempo stats to be genuinely meaningful, but still somewhat illustrative - the average adjusted tempo of New Big Ten schools is 65.35. Of the New ACC? 65.72.

For the non-math majors, that's less than half a possession a game in difference between the two conferences so far this year.

And in football, Ohio State has embraced the Urban Meyer spread, joining Northwestern, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Nebraska, and Purdue as schools having embraced, at least to some degree, the spread concept in the Big Ten. Three yards and a cloud of dust this is not.

Objection #8: We won't have a rival there.

I'll be brutally honest: we don't have a rival now. Not a single school in the ACC circles Maryland on their schedule. It's unfortunate, but it's true.

What Maryland has is teams they enjoy beating: Duke, UNC, State, Virginia. And with the genesis of the ACC's new scheduling, those teams will be seen less and less. After all, don't you know that Pitt is your rival now? The New ACC is as much Notre Dame and Boston College and Clemson and Pitt as it is Duke and Virginia.

There will be hatable teams in the Big Ten, too, once you get to know them. It may take a few years, but I could certainly get used to going to Bloomington and beating Indiana in their pomp, or extracting yearly revenge on Michigan State for the shot that ended Greivis Vasquez's career. Again, I'm not trying to sell you on how much better the Big Ten is here - I'm not. I'm trying to point out that it's probably not a huge deal at the end of the day. Basketball will not stop simply because Duke and UNC are on the schedule.

And, frankly, Maryland should not define themselves on Duke and UNC. These schools don't care about Maryland. It's time for the University to start acting like a big-time program and look out for itself, instead of staying in Carolina's thrall. This problem won't be alleviated by the Big Ten, but the extra cash will make it a lot easier to swallow.

Objection #9: I just plain like the ACC and its tradition, and I don't want to leave it.

I don't blame you. The ACC is a good conference that has given Maryland a lot of great moments. Leaving it is not easy and isn't supposed to be easy. Everyone has their preferences. And some people, perhaps you among them, prefer the ACC, feel attached to its history. That's understandable.

But just as Maryland left the Southern Conference back in the day to jump to the superior ACC, so too must they look out for themselves and jump to the superior Big Ten. The biggest concern here is the wellbeing of the University of Maryland, nothing else. And the best move for the wellbeing of the University, both academically and athletically (at least financially) is the Big Ten move.

You don't have to like that fact. But it's very, very difficult to craft a true argument otherwise, except for citing "heritage" - an unquantifiable factor that varies wildly in its importance depending on who you ask. Len Elmore likes it a lot; plenty of fans and alums actually don't. It's asking a heck of a lot to turn down a better situation for the University and the athletic department, with a lot more money, a hefty academic benefit, and a huge amount of added stability, due to what more or less amounts to your preference.


Well, that's that. If you dislike the ACC, you're probably psyched about the move; if you love it, you're probably more distraught. Hopefully, though, whichever side you land on, you have a better grasp of the "why" of the situation.

And again, I don't blame you if you're unhappy with the move. But it's happening. And I don't blame you if you resent that Maryland has to do it. But they probably do. Hopefully, the end result will be a stronger, more competitive Maryland, and that's something I think everyone can get behind.