The Maryland athletic department’s financial woes have grown greater and graver in the past two decades.
In one fast-developing move, the school hopes it can solve its long-standing headaches.
Almost exactly a year after it announced its feeble finances would force the school to cut several sports, Maryland accepted an invitation to the Big Ten Conference on Monday. The Terrapins will begin play in their new league in the 2014-15 school year.
“This is a watershed moment for the University of Maryland ” school president Wallace D. Loh said. “As members of the Big Ten Conference, we will be able to ensure the financial sustainability of Maryland athletics for decades to come.”
The decision, on the same day the university system’s Board of Regents approved the move, ends a nearly 60-year affiliation between Maryland and the Atlantic Coast Conference. The school was one of the conference’s charter members in 1953.
For all the glowing talk of academic benefits from Loh and others, the most obvious reason for both parties to take this plunge was money.
A university commission on athletics last year found that athletic department deficits were expected to reach almost $8.7 million in 2013 and $17.2 million in 2017 without any action. The school ultimately cut seven sports, dropping Maryland’s overall athletic offerings to 20 teams.
A Big Ten affiliation brings a vastly more lucrative television payout. Jim Delany, the Big Ten’s commissioner, told reporters in June the conference distributed $284 million to its current members during the last school year. That comes out to an average of nearly $23.7 million, and the Big Ten’s television contracts are up in 2017.
The ACC, meanwhile, announced a renegotiated deal in May that provides an average of $17 million per school over the course of a deal that stretches through 2027.
“We have done so much with so little for so long,” Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson said. “Now imagine what our teams are going to be able to accomplish with the financial stability we’ll be able to present them.”
The ACC’s $50 million exit fee — enacted in September over the objections of Maryland and Florida State — is something Loh opposed as a “legal and philosophical issue” and appeared to be the major barrier for any move.
Loh offered no specifics on how Maryland would handle the issue, only saying taxpayers would not fund it and that it was “something we will discuss in private with the ACC.”
“The exit sum of $50 million is, of course, a very large sum,” Loh said. “But I said that we have an arrangement under our membership that will assure the future of the Maryland athletics for decades to come. As we crunched those numbers, we are able to deal with this issue.”
The Big Ten is at 13 schools with Maryland. Multiple reports over the weekend suggested Rutgers would receive an invitation if Maryland agreed to join the Big Ten. Delany declined to comment about the addition of any more schools.
“Maybe some people fear the turtle,” Delany said. “We embrace the turtle. Today is Maryland’s day.”
Money also figures to be a driving force for the Big Ten, long a juggernaut of mostly large public schools in the Midwest. With Maryland and potentially Rutgers in the fold, the conference would have a contiguous presence from New Jersey to Nebraska and effectively bisect the ACC’s touted geographic footprint along the East Coast.
The addition of the Washington and Baltimore markets that Maryland occupies, as well as the potential of the New York and Philadelphia markets that Rutgers straddles, provides the Big Ten a significant presence in major eastern markets. In turn, it means millions of additional households that could pay fees if cable operators opt to carry the Big Ten Network.
Maryland anticipates the trickle-down eventually will impact athletics and academics, with the school’s high-profile revenue sports of men’s basketball and football almost certain to benefit.
“Our budget is nowhere near where it needs to be,” men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon said. “I expect it to be a much better budget because of this move.”
While Maryland’s basketball program generally has thrived (it won the national championship in 2002 and tied for the ACC’s regular-season title as recently as 2010), its football team has lagged behind in recent years. Aside from a three-year run of 10-win seasons from 2001 through 2003, Maryland rarely has been a significant factor in the conference race.
A step up to the Big Ten figures to make football relevance a greater challenge but also will provide additional resources for the underfunded program.
“This is something that enhances the University of Maryland in totality,” football coach Randy Edsall said. “You’re talking about academics. You’re talking about athletics. Everybody benefits from this. I just think it was a tremendous opportunity that was presented to us, and it was something you really couldn’t turn down.”
Loh said discussions about a move to the Big Ten “began in earnest” over the past two weeks. He said he consulted experts to go over the financial impact and had conversations with a “limited” number of senior stakeholders at the university, as well as elected state officials, major donors, Board of Regents members and students.
In the end, he was determined to do what he believed was best for the university.
“Someone asked how intense this was,” said Loh, who arrived at Maryland in 2010 after serving as the provost at Big Ten member Iowa. “Suffice to say that I have not had much sleep over the last two and a half weeks because it’s been a very, very intense process.”
Now it’s over, and Maryland is leaving behind its home of six decades for a conference. It was where Randy White and Lefty Driesell, Boomer Esiason and Len Bias, Gary Williams and Ralph Friedgen, Joe Smith and Juan Dixon and countless others became recognized names.
And soon enough, after what is sure to be more than a year and a half of awkwardness, it will be where so much tradition in college athletics has been deposited: In the past.
“It’s going to take time for all of us to digest it,” Turgeon said, “But there’s no turning back.”