Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Big Ten Expansion: More Musical Chairs (by @BigBurgher)

I typically don't do a whole ton with college athletics over here. Between the Pirates, Steelers and Penguins there is a lot to do and I am only a one man show with a real job that takes up a majority of my time college stuff just sort of falls through the cracks even though I am a college sports fan.

My buddy Adam (or as you may know him on twitter @BigBurgher), approached me and asked if I would be interested in a post from some of the Maryland news that was going on between them and the B1G. I was absolutely interested in this. When Pitt moved to the ACC I threw something up and with Adam being a Maryland grad and a strong supporter of the Maryland programs this was a great way to sort of break out of the pro sports mold that we (I) have going on over here.

Needless to say this was a topic close to the heart for Adam so please enjoy this as he does an outstanding job laying it all out for you.

I must also give a huge thanks to Adam for doing this. He's the man.

What just happened?

Sometime late last week The Big Ten extended an offer to The University of Maryland to join their conference beginning with the 2014-15 academic year. Maryland's Chancellor was inclined to accept the offer almost immediately, having likely visited the issue as rumors swirled last spring, but met with University President and then University's Board of Regents late Sunday night in order to keep all on the same proverbial page. The Board voted overwhelmingly Monday morning to accept The Big Ten's offer. Maryland completed their application Monday and it was accepted and approved within an hour.

NOTE: ESPN and other outlets are reporting Rutgers received a similar offer some time after Maryland, possibly contingent on Maryland's acceptance. Rutgers is believed to be joining Tuesday.

Why would this happen?

Money. The answer to most of the questions related to conference expansion/raiding/defecting is money. However, in this instance it is not as simple as a "Cash Grab" by any of the parties.

The Big Ten had been courting Notre Dame (and their ma$$ive following) for some time until their recent deal this fall to sortof join the ACC. I will not belabor the details of ND's agreement to play ACC opponents in football and basketball, but suffice it to say: they are an ex officio member of sorts. An expansion to fourteen (or possibly even sixteen) teams is something that many figured would add stability to the Big Ten Network in the face of an increasingly shifting college athletics landscape and a not insignificant growing claim by The SEC to the title of "The Far And Away Leader In College Football, Don't Even Bring It Up, It's Not Up For Debate." Notre Dame has a VERY strong nationwide pull and when that was off the table The Big Ten likely intensified their search for prospective targets for tv dollar-driven expansion. Enter The NYC and DC markets at #1 and #4, respectively. When the Big Ten Network sits down the negotiating table with their cable distributors they'll be able to point to this. Regardless of either school's athletic prowess, academic achievement or anything, really: they have a REASON to broadcast to those markets now. 

As for the Maryland side, it's not nearly as simple. First, the money: Maryland has fell on hard times financially. Debbie Yow, athletic director from 1994 to 2010 at Maryland oversaw the school's winning of TWENTY D1 National Championships in athletics...but at what cost? Stating from the beginning it was her goal to expand Maryland into the "UCLA of The East" Maryland grew to a bloated size with a matching debt. Forced to cut nine of 27 programs just last year, there is no question that Yow left Maryland in dire straits. Prior to this move, Maryland's athletic department would not have been out of the red until 2019, and that's with an assurance to creditors that both Basketball and Football draw significant revenue. I could go on ad nauseum about Yow, how she quit before she was fired and fled to NC State, but just ask me @BigBurgher, it's easier.Big Ten schools are all members of the AAU, a higher-tier organization whose members are universities which share pooled resources such as research knowledge, programming and most importantly FUNDING (except Nebraska who was just ousted). Maryland, already a member of the AAU was a logical fit and will now be part of the CIC, the Big Ten's branch of the AAU...to the tune of somewhere between $50-70M per annum in funding. It's important to recognize this: If you were completely dispassionate about college athletics this fact alone would make the move an absolute "no-brainer" as it is a complete windfall for both Maryland or any other school.

Second, the stability: If you've informed yourself of anything pertaining to the mess that are all these conference shifts it should be this: Football Rules All. Consider that Indiana Football, arguably the lowest in the Big Ten, made more money than Maryland basketball last year. Nationally, it's a ten-to-one ration of football to basketball dollars at worst. This means that a conference like the ACC, who at best will have one or two nationally relevant programs in football on any given year, is actually more precariously perched than some may think. Consider this: Wake Forest has 4,500 students undergrad. That's less than Robert Morris University. Sure, Duke is a hoops powerhouse...but they were unheard of before Coach K was there. Can you guarantee their continued relevance? What about persistent rumors that Florida State and Clemson are seeking to be members of The SEC or Big12? One thing is far more stable: The Big Ten will be around, in some form, for the foreseeable future, but the ACC may not be.

Third, the feelings: As a charter member of the ACC it may seem puzzling that Maryland would "abandon" it's brethren. The ironic and sad part of all this is that when The ACC was a 9-team conference, back in 2003, the move was made to invite Virginia Tech and Miami for the football strength they would bring. So strong was the case that football would win out that Boston College left THE LEAD SEAT at the table of Big East schools bringing legal action against The ACC to join the conference. But it has not worked. Maryland and Duke, then the loan dissenting votes at the table for that original expansion have rarely found such common ground. Sure, Marylanders may suffer from an inferiority complex at the behest of UNC, Duke and even NC State at times. But there is little room for discussion on the notion of a "Carolina Bias"...take for example The ACC's want not to move the annual basketball tournament from Greensboro. Or their refusal to give member universities a say in the Notre Dame offer. Or the recent massive increase in punitive exit fees. If you're a Pitt fan and you're reading this you don't have to take my word for it. Wait until you play Duke in Cameron, then tell me about bias. Of course, emotions have little to no place in a decision involving milions of dollars, let alone the educational direction of a publicly funded institution. A great example of this has been watching a number of highly visible alum and athletes (Torrey Smith, Len Elmore...even some of the Board of Regents) speak out initially about this move only to come on board with it as the details of the situation have become public. The fact is this: Maryland's dilemma and resulting decision is not even accurately portrayed in the "winning lottery ticket" metaphor that you likely have heard ascribed, it's more akin to their proverbial mortgage being paid off first, too.

Lastly, the potential: Under Armour. You've seen it. You've likely worn it. You probably remember those "WE MUST PROTECT THIS HOUSE!" ads on television. Kevin Plank, Under Armour's inventor and CEO is a Maryland alum, former player, booster and a growing personality on the college athletic scene. His sights are set directly on Nike and their crown jewel Oregon Ducks program and he means Maryland to be his vehicle to get there. The exposure offered him via Maryland's appearance on The Big Ten Network and massive Big Ten ESPN coverage deal would mean a serious uptick in notoriety. The original "house" to be protected, it's already being said that an expansion to Maryland's Byrd Stadium will be soon to follow this deal. It's also worth noting Maryland is on "The Come Up" in both revenue sports. Gary Williams, God love him, was old school. One of the chief reasons he stepped away from the college game was the increasing importance of AAU and JuCo recruiting...and his refusal to participate (imagine if Kevin Durant or Carmelo had actually been Terps). Add to that the fact that The Balt/Wash area is literally a top 3 area for high school hoops and...well...Terps have some phenomenal recruiting classes already lined up. The same cannot be said about football, at least not to that degree, but with Penn State having a downturn recently, Maryland has locked up some impressive talent, most notably Stephon Diggs, the nation's top freshman WR recruit last season. Need more proof of football success en route? How about Pittsburgh becoming Terp territory lately? QBs 1 and 2 on Maryland's depth chart this year were from Central Catholic and Seneca Valley, along with a top WR and more on the way. Will Maryland be another Oregon? Probably not. But do they have a better chance of becoming one in the Big Ten? Absolutely.

What does this mean to me?

I suppose it depends on who you root for. If you're a Pitt fan, I apologize as it appears The Terps and Panthers will only meet one awkward season of The ACC as the basketball SUPER CONFERENCE next year. It also means more shifting landscape. It's possible UVA & UNC will be sought by the BigTen to keep up if The SEC makes a move toward 16 teams as many have suggested. As mentioned above, those plans could involve FSU, Clemson or even VTech. As for replacement schools, UConn has been wanting into The ACC since 2003 according to many. I think that happens now. If you're a PSU fan, it likely means realignment. Spanning New Jersey to Minnesota, the travel budgets for Big Ten schools will have to be sizable. I would not be surprised to see Legends & Leaders divisions to give way to more East & West groupings. If you are a fan of literally any other top 100 program in either sport: Hold on to your hats.

I won't pretend for a second to be a nonpartisan on this issue. As a 2004 graduate of The University of Maryland who has family in that area, I have followed the school's athletic development for around fifteen years. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, I am a fan of the region's three professional sports franchises, ACC Hoops was the lone outlier in my sports fandom. I'll certainly be sad to see the basketball history fall by the wayside. The truth is it has not been the same since 2003. Giving up the "Home & Away" 9-team schedule changed much of the fabric of ACC Hoops. And if what was left didn't go out the door with adding Syracuse and Pitt, I think it can be said it has now.

As a graduate, my chief concern is with the value UMD provides myself and my family, namely the diploma that hangs on my wall. This move unquestionably raises that value. Living in Pittsburgh, the last few years I would often get into arguments with people as to which conference was superior in basketball: Big East or ACC. I will admit, that last season (and potentially a few before) the answer was not what I wanted it to be. Now, I will not have a dog in that fight. Instead, I will likely be defending my alma mater as a "villain" of sorts. An institute of higher learning's first priority should be to educate, this move unquestionably increases Maryland's ability to do so. Hopefully, people will take the time to understand the above and why this has all happened.

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