Setting aside almost 60 years of athletic tradition in a quest for greater financial stability, the University of Maryland will join the Big Ten Conference, school and league officials announced Monday after a weekend of whirlwind negotiations.
In another of the massive conference shifts that have defined college sports in recent years, Maryland will join the traditionally Midwestern Big Ten in 2014, leaving behind the Atlantic Coast Conference, which the university helped found in 1953.
The move is an emotional one for students, athletes and alumni, many of whom were raised on fierce rivalry games between Maryland and ACC powers such as Duke and the University of North Carolina. But the millions of dollars in additional revenue from the Big Ten’s television deals was too great for Maryland officials, who cut seven sports this year in hopes of closing a $4 million deficit in the athletic department budget.
At an afternoon news conference on campus, university president Wallace Loh described the move as a “watershed moment” that will “ensure the financial sustainability of Maryland athletics for years to come.” He added that a new influx of revenue would allow the university to restore teams that were cut earlier this year for budget reasons.
In detailing negotiations that lasted about two weeks, Loh and athletic director Kevin Anderson said the university’s coaches were initially stunned by the possible move and acknowledged that many students and alumni are unhappy.
“At first, it was like going through all the processes of grieving,” Anderson said of his meetings with coaches.
“I’m very aware that for many Terp fans and alumni, the reaction is stunned,” Loh said. “I made this decision as best I could, in consultation with key stakeholders and after doing due diligence. There was only one objective: do what’s best for the University of Maryland.”
Maryland’s Board of Regents voted to endorse the move Monday morning after being briefed Sunday by Loh. The Big Ten’s Council of Presidents then quickly approved Maryland’s application for admission. The startling shift was a done deal less than 48 hours after negotiations became public knowledge.
Big Ten commissioner James E. Delany described his presidents as “giddy” in approving Maryland’s application. He said that as a flagship university representing a demographically rich state that’s contiguous to existing Big Ten territory, Maryland is a perfect addition. “I know there’s some ambivalence and maybe some anger,” Delany said in addressing Maryland fans. “But I hope that over time, we can embrace each other and realize that we can be better together than we were apart.”
The jump could come with a hefty initial price tag of $50 million, the cost of exiting the ACC as approved by the conference’s schools earlier this year. University system officials said Monday they weren’t sure how much Maryland would end up paying or how the cost would be covered. Loh said the university has a plan and that details would be worked out in private negotiations with ACC officials.
But system leaders said the long-term financial benefits of joining the Big Ten would outweigh the initial financial hit.
“We've got to look to the future,” said state regent Patricia Florestano in explaining the vote.
Maryland was expected to receive about $17 million a year in shared television revenue from the ACC once the league expanded to include Syracuse University and the University of Pittsburgh in 2013. Big Ten schools will each receive about $24.6 million this year, according to a May report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and analysts say that number could rise with expansion.
With Maryland and the expected addition Tuesday of Rutgers University, the footprint of the 14-team Big 10 would stretch from the East Coast to Nebraska, with major television markets such as New York, Chicago and Baltimore/Washington included.
That geographic reach will give the Big Ten greater leverage when it negotiates a new media rights deal in 2017. It will also allow the already-prosperous Big Ten Network to charge higher rights fees from East Coast and Mid-Atlantic cable distributors, said regional network analyst Lee Berke, CEO of LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media, Inc.
“They might be able to double their fees in many markets, which would allow a substantial leap forward financially for the schools,” Berke said. “Overall, there’s great upside for Maryland to make this move in terms of geography, television and finances.”
Berke said it’s too early to put an exact figure on how much Big Ten schools will profit from expansion. A Sports Illustrated report Monday said Big Ten officials had told Maryland it could add almost $100 million by 2020 in the conference switch.
Maryland officials said they were also enticed by the prospect of joining an academic consortium of Big Ten schools known as the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, which pools research assets.
“I support the move largely because of what it means to the university academically,” said William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. Kirwan has spent most of his career in Maryland, including a stint as the president at College Park, but he also served as president at Ohio State University in the Big Ten.
“There’s nothing to match this level of academic collaboration in any other major conference,” Kirwan said of the Big Ten consortium.
The move is likely to be seen as a defining moment for Loh, who came to College Park two years ago from the University of Iowa, a Big Ten school. Loh inherited an athletic department in financial turmoil because of disappointing revenues in football and men’s basketball and debt from a $50.8-million facelift to Byrd Stadium.
Program cuts were his short-term answer, but on Monday, Loh said the athletic department is still living “paycheck to paycheck.” He described the move to the Big Ten as a long-term antidote.
Loh said he wasn’t seriously considering a move when discussions with the Big Ten began more than two weeks ago. But as negotiations intensified, he said he was swayed by the prospect of protecting the university from painful program cuts for decades to come.
Asked which teams might be restored from men’s and women’s swimming, men’s tennis, women’s water polo, acrobatics and tumbling, men’s cross country and men’s indoor track, Anderson said he would reconvene the committee that reviewed the original program cuts and move from there.
The memory of cutting those teams weighed heavily on Anderson, who broke the news in dozens of face-to-face conversations with athletes. It helped drive the decision to find Maryland a more comfortable financial environment in the Big Ten.
Anderson and others also questioned whether the ACC had a strong enough football profile. Maryland had been among conference schools privately expressing interest in further expansion, according to ACC member representatives.
Approval for the conference move was not unanimous among the regents, who oversee the state university system. Regent Tom McMillen, a former Maryland basketball star, said he was troubled by the speed of negotiations on so large an issue.
“I was against it,” McMillen said. “I felt there was no time for an opposing view. I felt a decision like this should have been made with more consultation and deliberation.
“The decision was all about money no matter how you sugarcoat it. I wanted to hear from athletes. I wanted to hear from the ACC.”
A spokeswoman said Gov. Martin O’Malley was aware of negotiations with the Big Ten but left the decision to the university system.
Reaction was swift
As news of the possible move spread over the weekend, students, fans and alumni flocked to social media to express their distaste. A Facebook group called “Keep UMD in the ACC!” had almost 2,000 members by Monday afternoon.
Maryland sold out its lengthy tradition with the ACC, said James Booth, a junior from Hartsdale, N.Y.
“I don’t put much stock in what [Wallace Loh] says anymore,” he said. “I think he’s a businessman. He makes the university money, or is trying to, which is a good thing in some aspects. But I really feel like he’s, as far as the individual student experience, whether it be outside of athletics or within in terms of the whole ACC, it’s all about the money to him.”
The athletic benefits are most obvious in football, where Big 10 powers such as Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State draw some of the largest crowds in the sport and where Maryland’s rivalries are less deep-seated.
Though Maryland football has traditionally struggled against the Big Ten, Anderson said he’s confident that with new recruiting avenues open “we will be very competitive.”
Men’s basketball, by contrast, is where fans will feel the most acute pain as they cling to memories of classic games against North Carolina and Duke that brought the College Park campus to a frenzy. Though Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan State carry grand traditions in the sport, any sense of rivalry with Maryland will have to grow from the ground up.
The move also prompted concerns in lacrosse, where Maryland has built powerful men’s and women’s programs in part because of its rivalries with ACC schools such as North Carolina, Duke and the University of Virginia. The Big Ten has no equivalent powerhouses on the men’s side and only Northwestern University on the women’s side. “At first glance, it looks like a negative, because the ACC is the premiere conference in college lacrosse,” said ESPN analyst Mark Dixon.
But the jump drew support from heavyweights such as Gary Williams, who played at Maryland and coached the school to its lone national championship in men’s basketball. Williams also coached in the Big Ten at Ohio State and has served as an analyst for the Big Ten Network. “I think Maryland is looking at what’s best for them for the future,” Williams said in a Sunday interview.
Political leaders with ties to the university also endorsed the move. “I go to as many men’s basketball games as I can and will miss the match-ups against teams like Duke and UNC,” said Baltimore County Democratic Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who played lacrosse at Maryland. “That said, I think this move will enable Maryland to stay competitive and generate the revenue needed to sustain a successful athletic program.”
Sun reporters Michael Dresser, John Fritze, Don Markus and Rhiannon Walker contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun