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At University of Maryland, football fandom continues to fall

The University of Maryland has struggled to reverse recent declines in fan interest in the football program, which underwent a turbulent 2018 season after the heatstroke death of 19-year-old player Jordan McNair, a new document shows.

Athletic event ticket sales and outside donations to the football program fell in the fiscal year ending last June 30 for the second year in a row, according to financial figures obtained in a Public Information Act request by The Baltimore Sun.

And that was before a fall season in which fewer fans filled Maryland Stadium. The university acknowledged that football ticket sales and revenue slipped last season after McNair’s death, but said it was too early to say by how much. Publicly available statistics show that home football attendance, which hovered close to 40,000 from 2015 to 2017, dropped to about 35,000.

It’s hardly the path Maryland administrators anticipated when the school joined the prestigious Big Ten Conference in 2014 with the goal of stabilizing athletic department finances, elevating the football program and rejuvenating the fan base.

“There is work to do to rebuild the financial trajectory of Maryland athletics,” university athletics spokeswoman Jessica Jennings said in response to the budget figures, which are contained in a fiscal 2018 financial report to the NCAA.

She said the Big Ten has generally placed Maryland “on a stronger financial footing” but that the university’s priorities include “increasing the number of donors supporting the annual fund and rejuvenating ticket sales.”

To balance its budget, the school relies heavily on guaranteed revenues distributed by the Big Ten to its member schools regardless of how their teams perform. The conference has lucrative television deals with ESPN and Fox Sports.

The financial reports covering 2018 and earlier show Maryland’s share amounted to $40.6 million in the last fiscal year, up from $37.3 million in 2017 and more than double the distribution it received ($19 million) in its final season in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The athletics budget showed a surplus of $475,000 in the last fiscal year.

But after five Big Ten seasons, Maryland’s football ambitions have not been realized. The school left the ACC after 61 years with hopes that the more potent and football-centric Big Ten would help consistently fill Maryland Stadium’s 54,000 seats.

“The idea that we would pack the stadium forgets the fact that there is an equation there,” said former Terps basketball star Len Elmore, a lawyer and college professor who once served on the University of Maryland Foundation Board of Trustees. “You've got to win in order to pack the stadium, especially when you’re in an environment where there are so many other competitive professional sports. I don’t know why that part of the equation wasn't given more weight — the fact that it takes so long to turn programs around.”

Football’s success is important because it accounts for more than one-third of athletic department revenues. Operating expenses such as coaching salaries have been steadily rising, and the university in 2017 opened the $196 million Cole Field House center, which houses a new indoor practice facility for football.

Since joining the Big Ten, Maryland’s record in conference games is 13-30, including a 3-6 record during the tumultuous 2018 season.

McNair died in June after suffering heatstroke during a May 29 conditioning drill. University President Wallace Loh has publicly said the school took “legal and moral responsibility for mistakes the training staff made” on the day McNair was hospitalized.

A consultant’s report concluded that team staff failed to immerse the offensive lineman from Randallstown in cold water, a treatment that experts say likely would have saved his life. It said more than an hour passed between the time McNair started displaying initial heatstroke symptoms and when university officials called 911.

His death sent the football program into a prolonged transition period, punctuated by coach DJ Durkin being briefly reinstated and then being dismissed Oct. 31 by Loh.

“I think it's a deep hole, but it's not one they’re not capable of climbing out of,” Elmore said. “I think really it’s about a culture change — it’s about admissions that were made and actions that were taken to rectify the situation.”

Loh had announced in the aftermath of the tragedy that he would retire at the end of the school year. But the university system’s Board of Regents said last week that he would remain through June 2020 while the search for a new president proceeded.

Maryland said it has been implementing a series of reforms, including 20 suggested by Rod Walters, a sports medicine consultant hired to examine what happened to McNair.

Those include new conditioning and training procedures and increases to medical training staff members and on-site cooling stations.

“We fully understand that our fans had concerns last season,” Jennings said. “Maryland athletics continues to grieve the loss of Jordan McNair, and will continue to honor his life on and off the field. We will continue to keep our community updated on our work to enhance the well-being and safety of our student-athletes across all sports and our commitment to our student-athletes.”

She said the university has been boosting its outreach efforts to donors around the state. “On ticket sales, we are listening to the feedback of our donors and fans to make changes that enhance game day experiences,” she said. For example, she said, the university has added a private group space on the football stadium’s west concourse “to offer a more tailored experience for groups.”

The athletics department said last year that it still owed the university about $43 million in what it called “internal debt” — much of it as reimbursement for the $31 million it cost to leave the ACC. The school did not provide any updated debt figures.

Maryland football has had two winning seasons since 2011.

As the team struggled on the field, outside contributions to football fell from $2.3 million to $1.9 million from the 2017 to 2018 fiscal years, and donations to athletics overall decreased from $12.2 million to $11.7 million, according to the documents.

Ticket sales revenue from all sporting events went from $15.2 million to $14.7 million. After declining sharply to $6.6 million in the 2017 fiscal year, football ticket sales rose to $6.9 million the following year before declining again last fall in the first part of the 2019 fiscal year, according to the university.

The $6.9 million total barely surpassed the $6.4 million the team recorded in its final season in the ACC.

The financial documents obtained by The Sun contain a more detailed accounting of department revenue and expenses than is generally available. The most recent report, covering the fiscal year ending last June, was dated Jan. 15.

College football attendance has been declining nationwide. It fell more than 3 percent in 2017 in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision, the top level of college football that includes Maryland. The NCAA hasn't released the 2018 figures.

“The trends were already starting to show when Maryland became a full-fledged [Big Ten] member in 2014,” said Karen Weaver, a sports management professor at Drexel University who has been a Big Ten coach and athletics administrator. “We've made it way too comfortable for people to watch any game they want at home.”

Weaver said Maryland also faced a problem competing for wins — and attention — in the Big Ten with traditional powerhouses Ohio State and Michigan.

“For a long time the conference was called the Big Two and the Little Eight,” Weaver said. While it has since expanded to 14 members, “Maryland has become one of those [little] teams,” she said.

In December, Maryland hired Michael Locksley, a former Alabama and Terps assistant, as head coach. Locksley is from the area and is known as a strong local recruiter.

“We have an opportunity to build something great here, and I am a builder by nature,” Locksley said. “It will take some hard work. It will take the community getting behind the team, but I have faith in our future.”

jebarker@baltsun.com

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