Monday, November 19, 2012

Maryland Departs ACC, Joins Big Ten

It has been a while since I have posted on this blog but in light of today's events I felt the urge to add my thoughts to the collective on Maryland's move to the Big Ten. Back in 2010 when the conference realignment was kicking into high gear I wrote that Maryland could not and should not refuse an invite from the Big Ten if one was offered. It seems that Notre Dame's laughable half in and half out deal with the ACC may have been the trigger for Jim Delaney, Big Ten commissioner, to make the move that had been brewing in Chicago for quite a while now. That decision is Maryland's opportunity.

The financial troubles of the athletic department have been well chronicled. With the financial mismanagement of former AD Debbie Yow the revenue and budget gap for Maryland is getting bigger every season. How did we get here? The football and basketball programs began to decline around the same time losing ticket sales and resulting in declines in Terrapin Club members. The economic crash in 2008 certainly didn't help matters, nor did the ill fated decision to add luxury suites at Byrd Stadium in the midst of the worst recession in modern times. Profligate spending on non-revenue sports by Debbie Yow certainly exacerbated the  bleeding. In the past budget shortfalls were covered by the use of one time sponsorship deal income or one time donations instead of consistent revenue. Now that those sponsorship deals or one time donations have largely been drained and the budget gap is a growing threat to Maryland's competitiveness.

Faced with a dire financial forecast President Loh and AD Kevin Anderson did not have many attractive options. They were forced to make painful cuts to programs, paring down the number of scholarship programs to 20, and putting the athletic department on a hard road of austerity measures. When the normal funding of conference television rights and poor fan spending cannot make up the shortfall you have to change something. Maryland's apathetic fanbase probably isn't going to change any time soon and the ACC's sad television deal isn't up for renegotiation until after creditors started showing up to pull the copper wiring out of Comcast Center. As Pete Thamel reported on Maryland will stand to make $12 million more in 2014 than they would have they stayed in the ACC. The numbers only get bigger from there to where they expect to bring in $42 million in revenue in 2017, which is almost double what the ACC stands to be paying its members.

It is understandable to approach the move to the Big Ten with melancholy but there is a real danger of crossing over into sentimentality. The old ACC has not existed since 2004 when we went through the initial round of expansion. The round robin disappeared and ACC basketball began a quiet decline. Those battles with traditional Tobacco Road opponents and longtime ACC rivals like Clemson are going by the wayside. In 2015, for basketball, six teams on the schedule would be former Big East programs. Games against Boston College, Notre Dame and Syracuse have nothing to do with the great history of the ACC that Maryland has been part of in the past. A indication of this was when Pittsburgh was named Maryland's primary partner. Maryland has more recent basketball history against a handful of its future Big Ten opponents than Pitt. If that is the direction the ACC is going then there is little point in maudlin nostalgia about the great rivalries that won't occur going forward. Maryland had a choice of staying in the ACC for emotional reasons and living hand to mouth or potentially thriving in the Big Ten run by executives who understand where college sports are going to be in a decade. Given those option there really isn't any choice.

There will be many bittersweet elements to this divorce. I will miss rivalry games against Virginia and the sometimes fanatical devotion to basketball that was part of the fabric of the ACC. At the same time it is an unavoidable conclusion that the smug belief among ACC-philes that it is the best conference in the country hasn't been true for a while now. North Carolina and Duke continue to chug along while the rest of the league fail to contend for any significant achievements. The inclusion of football lightweights Pitt and Syracuse is a reflection of the insecurities of the basketball coaches in the ACC and more than a little envy at the Big East NCAA bid numbers the last few years.

On balance this a move that Maryland's administrators had to make for the future of the sports programs. Maryland can choose to live in a threadbare, dilapidated mansion continuing to hold onto golden memories or take a risk of building a new future with new challenges.