Commentary: Nothing personal, fans, playing musical conferences is just business

Commentary: Nothing personal, fans, playing musical conferences is just business
(John Langton/Times illustration, Carroll County Times)

It was startling to see a Big Ten college basketball team (Maryland) notching a win for the Atlantic Coast Conferece in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge on Tuesday. But not as bizarre as seeing an ACC football team (Louisville) knock off a Big Ten team (Rutgers) for the Big East championship on Thursday.

What kind of state is the Big East in? The conference added Tulane and East Carolina and that move is supposed to be an upgrade.


Of course, ACC fans up and down Tobacco Road shouldn't be snickering at the Big East's demise (which the ACC, of course, set in motion by raiding no less than seven Big East teams).

The de facto trade of Maryland for Louisville might ultimately be a good move for the league. Or, the big southern schools could get antsy, start bolting for the SEC and Big Ten (or Big 14 or Big 17 or whatever it becomes) leaving Duke and Wake Forest behind, wondering exactly how they got into bed with Pitt and Syracuse when all they wanted to do was play North Carolina and N.C. State in perpetuity.

Playing musical conferences is an amusing annoyance to fans. Until their team is affected. Then it gets really important.

Maryland fans woke up two weeks ago to the news that their beloved Terrapins would be leaving an ACC they'd been a part of for nearly 60 years. Generations of fans had bonded over a hatred of Duke and North Carolina in basketball. They had enjoyed trips to Charlottesville and Death Valley for football.

And now they had to start learning about Northwestern, Iowa and Minnesota.

Maryland officials - the ones who helped get Maryland athletics into such a financial morass in the first place - initially tried to spin this as a move as much for academics as money. Funny how smart people assume the rest of us are really stupid.

Not that they cared what the fans thought. They kept this all very hush-hush because they knew no self-respecting Terp supporter would even entertain turning in lifelong rivals for Midwestern foes they'd never paid attention to just so Maryland could go from the red to the black and keep pace in the arms race that is facility building.

By the way, there were major upgrades in the last decade to the homes of Maryland's football and basketball teams. How's that working out in terms of those teams' competitiveness?

Maryland fans are just the latest to feel disenfranchised. They can join Missouri fans who no longer get to see their team play Kansas but now are supposed to work up some hatred for Vanderbilt. Or Texas A&M fans, in the process of trading in Texas for South Carolina. Or Nebraska, who lost Oklahoma as a rival but gained Michigan State.

Right now, Maryland sees dollar signs. A get-out-of-debt card that U.S. politicians would love to be handed. ("The United States is switching continents, moving to Asia because of a lucrative trade deal. Film at 11.")

It's hard to say how Maryland fans will react after the initial angst and uproar. Truth is, the ACC they're leaving is nothing like the ACC they grew up with.

For more than 30 years starting in the early 1970s, the ACC was the best basketball conference the NCAA has ever known. Perfectly constructed as an eight- or nine-team league, fans and recruits alike knew, respected and despised their rivals.

In basketball, every team had a home-and-home with every other team each year and, football-wise, each team would play every other ACC team. That's kind of the point of being in the same conference isn't it?

But, in a desperate attempt to make their football more relevant nationally that was, in reality, a money grab that foreshadowed all that has happened since, the ACC added Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech in the middle of the last decade. Suddenly, with 12 teams, home-and-homes were done in basketball and several conference rivals would be left off the football schedule.

ACC basketball has suffered. And ACC football? Well, again, how's that working out?

Perhaps the infusion of cash will allow Maryland to reinstate sports it previously axed. Or perhaps the top-notch non-revenue programs at Maryland that have flourished will suffer the move badly. Do they even play lacrosse in the Big Ten?

Of course, those sports never factored into this equation. Not even basketball.

In college sports, it's all about football and make no mistake, college football is big business. So those who run college football programs and conferences are sticking their fingers in the air and trying to figure out the best way to make money - or start climbing out of debt - right now.

This is the short-term mentality of most businesses today. (Not good businesses, mind you , but most businesses). They compromise their values, they dilute, devalue and destroy their product, all in search of the quick buck. Make a profit this year, boost revenue next year.

And what of 2018 when consumers have long since figured out what an inferior product they've been force-fed?

Well, worry about that later.

Twenty years from now, Maryland fans talking about the great basketball battles with Duke and North Carolina will sound like old Brooklyn Dodgers fans. It will all be lost to history, rivalries forgotten.

Maybe it will turn out well for Maryland. Maybe the Terrapins will become quite competitive in the Big Ten and passionate rivalries with Penn State and, ahem, Rutgers will be forged.

Or maybe after an initial boost, the school will find that having lots of money doesn't really matter if fewer and fewer people care about your product.