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As Big Ten shakes up college sports again with addition of USC and UCLA, Maryland is finally on solid ground | ANALYSIS

Maryland spent over six decades in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and Gary Williams still felt disconnected at times. College Park was a three-hour drive from its closest league neighbor, Virginia, and a world away culturally from Tobacco Road, where the ACC was headquartered. Williams felt out of place in a North Carolina-centric conference. “We might as well be in Siberia,” the legendary men’s basketball coach once groused.

Over time, the ACC as Williams knew it began to change. In 2004, Miami and Virginia Tech, the Big East Conference’s dominant football powers, joined the league. A year later, Boston College, nearly 400 miles north of College Park, followed. In 2012, with two more schools set to join the ACC as full members, Maryland was assigned a “rival” in men’s basketball: Pittsburgh, a program it had played just seven times ever.

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So when Maryland, later that year, announced it would be moving to the Big Ten Conference in 2014, seeking greater financial security amid a collection of Midwest schools, Williams was not heartbroken.

“I coached in the [ACC] for 22 years,” Williams, who retired in 2010, told The Baltimore Sun after Maryland’s move was announced. “There’s great memories there, without a doubt. At the same time, you have to look at what’s best for the university.”

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A decade ago, Maryland chose sustainability over sentimentality. On Thursday, the wisdom of the school’s controversial departure was reaffirmed amid the latest round of conference realignment. UCLA and Southern California will leave the Pac-12 Conference for the Big Ten in 2024, a seismic shift that should establish the league as a super-conference and further separate the haves from the have-nots in college sports.

A westward expansion for the Big Ten, which added Nebraska in 2011 and expanded to 14 schools with Maryland and Rutgers’ arrival in 2014, will bolster the league’s pursuit of a record-breaking media rights deal. Commissioner Kevin Warren can now claim substantial footprints in five of the country’s nine biggest TV markets, including New York and Los Angeles.

In a joint statement, Maryland president Darryll Pines and athletic director Damon Evans said the school supports the Big Ten’s decision to let USC and UCLA into the conference.

“Among the nation’s leading research institutions as part of the Association of American Universities (AAU), they share higher education priorities in providing well-rounded student-athlete experiences,” the statement says. “Their focus on student-athlete welfare and developing and celebrating a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion align with the values of the Big Ten. UCLA and USC have championship pedigrees in athletics and we are excited to compete against the Bruins and Trojans.”

In 2020, before a dip amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Big Ten led even the Southeastern Conference in total revenue; its 12 longest-standing members received an average payout of $54.3 million. (Maryland, which did not become a fully vested conference member until 2021, received a smaller share and a loan from the league.) In February, the Sports Business Journal reported that the Big Ten’s new media rights deal, which it’s currently negotiating, could be worth over $1 billion per season. Analyst projections have the conference nearly doubling the ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12 — which is set to lose Texas and Oklahoma in the coming years to the SEC — by the end of this decade.

“There isn’t enough money if your television contract isn’t such that it’s generating the money to basically keep your program profitable,” ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg said in an interview. “Look, universities are going to lose money because of [name, image and likeness deals]. They’re going to lose donations because some of those donations are now going into the [NIL] collectives. Nick Saban said it best: ‘Is it going to be sustainable?’ If it’s going to be sustainable, you have to find another revenue stream, and that’s obviously going to be TV.”

Maryland’s decision to leave the ACC, of which it was a founding member, was largely financially motivated. In 2012, the university cut seven sports in hopes of closing a $4 million deficit in the athletic department budget. Reeling from a costly renovation of Maryland Stadium and undercut by disappointing revenues in football and men’s basketball, Maryland was in shaky financial shape in the ACC. Then-school president Wallace D. Loh said the athletic department was living “paycheck to paycheck.”

Len Elmore, a former Terps men’s basketball star and current analyst for Fox Sports and the Big Ten Network, called Maryland’s decision to leave for the Big Ten a “pursuit for a larger piece of the college sports revenue pie.”

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“Recognizing that the Big Ten was one of the leaders in revenue generation has all come to pass now,” he said in an interview. “The Big Ten is projected with their rights deals … to be the leader in revenue generation, if not among the leaders with the SEC.

“If that was the goal of former Maryland president Dr. Loh and others, that decision on that basis looks pretty good.”

Maryland’s football program has long lacked the spending power to compete in the Big Ten. But the Terps, who are 37-55 since joining the conference, have stepped up their investment in the sport in recent years.

Last June, they unveiled their new state-of-the-art program facility, the $149.3 million Jones-Hill House, which has indoor practice fields, a 24,000-square-foot strength and conditioning room, new locker room and orthopedic treatment center. A new extension for coach Mike Locksley, announced in April, raised his pay to $4 million annually, closer to the Big Ten’s average.

Even in basketball, the Terps are catching up. Three years after revealing the plans for a basketball practice facility, Maryland announced in March that it had reached its $40 million fundraising goal for the Barry P. Gossett Basketball Performance Center. A university spokesperson told The Sun that they estimated a shovel will be in the dirt by 2023, and construction could take 18 months, Maryland Athletic Director Damon Evans said. Maryland is the only school in the Big Ten without a basketball-specific practice facility.

Other capital projects in College Park have remained on the backburner. Legendary men’s soccer coach Sasho Cirovski has long sought a stadium to replace Ludwig Field. The baseball program, coming off the best season in Maryland history, lacks a permanent indoor hitting facility.

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For Maryland student-athletes, the Big Ten’s growing power could also have far-reaching consequences for NIL opportunities. Over the past year, student-athletes across the country have received endorsement deals from companies like Gatorade, Beats and the shoe reseller company StockX. But there have been concerns about boosters getting heavily involved in the recruiting process.

According to a survey conducted by LEAD1 Association, 90% of athletic directors are concerned that NIL payments from collectives are being used as improper recruiting inducements, both for high school athletes or college transfers.

In May, the NCAA’s Division I Board of Directors issued new guidance, clarifying existing rules that prohibit boosters from being involved in the recruiting process of a high school athlete or transfer.

“It’s not NIL anymore; it’s pay-for-play,” Greenberg said. “Pay-for-play is built by collectives. The money going into these collectives, which is basically coming from wealthy boosters, maybe would’ve gone into the university.”

Greenberg added that the best television contracts enable schools to maintain business as usual while allowing boosters to contribute to collectives or individual players. “It’s the business of college athletics,” he said.

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Greenberg said the current framework of college athletics will not exist in five years. He suggested that the future of college sports would consist of four super-conferences concentrated in four regions of the country.

“Will the Big East be the fifth major conference? Will Gonzaga join in with Stanford and whoever is left in the Pac-12?” Greenberg said. “I think that’s the direction we are going in. The SEC and the Big Ten have made the first moves. Now it’s up to the rest of college athletics to catch up.”

Elmore said it’s crazy to think about teams creating rivalries from opposite coasts of the country, but noted that “stranger things have happened in college sports.”

“It’s not that these things shouldn’t have been anticipated,” he said. “But the rush to join conferences with the best payout creates the musical chairs we are seeing in college sports. Texas and Oklahoma jumping to the SEC was a harbinger of what’s to come. I’m assuming we haven’t seen the last.”


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