Documents show University of Maryland's big football gamble before Jordan McNair's death

In 2012, the University of Maryland lined up more than a dozen of its head coaches — dressed in matching red polo shirts — at a news conference designed, according to an internal email, to present a "visual display of unity."

The event was to formally announce the school's 2014 entry into the Big Ten Conference, a football powerhouse that university officials believed would finally elevate their own middling football program, excite the fan base and provide the athletic department long-term financial security through league-wide revenue sharing.

But six years later, department financial records show a football program dwindling in popularity despite its high-profile athletic conference and a $196 million investment by private donors, the university and the state in a new football field house and multipurpose center. The annual budget records — obtained in a Public Information Act request — chronicle year-over-year declines in football ticket sales revenue and outside donations to the team, even as expenses such as coaching salaries, recruiting, scholarships and team travel are rising.

Particularly ominous for the university is that the slippage came before 19-year-old offensive lineman Jordan McNair died of heatstroke in June, a tragedy analysts say has depressed recruiting and is likely to further erode attendance and fundraising. McNair's death plunged the football program into a prolonged transition period during which the school could be on the hook for millions of dollars to buy out the contracts of coaches, hire new ones and settle with McNair's family, which has hired a prominent lawyer.

On Tuesday, the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents will review a study by the commission tasked with examining the team’s culture after media reports that players were bullied or humiliated — reports that resulted in football coach DJ Durkin being placed on administrative leave. The findings should be made available within the next week.

Football was the university’s big gamble, and now the odds of a turnaround appear even longer.

The team's problems affect the entire athletics program because football is a linchpin helping to support less prominent teams.

"Football is a huge revenue driver for the intercollegiate athletics program," Athletic Director Damon Evans said in an interview. "And we've got to make sure that we best position that program to have success, because that then filters down to everyone else."

The efforts to boost football have come at significant expense. The records show that football's annual operating expenses of about $19 million dwarf those of any of the university’s other 18 teams. The department spent about $4.9 million on athletic scholarships for the sport last year — about five times more than for any other team. The $6.2 million budget for the football coaching staff accounted for more than one-third of spending on all of the school's coaches.

Five takeaways from University of Maryland's big gamble on football »

Those numbers are typical of major college football programs, which are costlier than other teams because of their size — Maryland had 93 players on scholarship — and competition to hire the best coaches. The concern for Maryland is that other schools in the conference — such as Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State — have much larger fan bases and stadiums.

Maryland was “trying to chase the end of the rainbow” by moving to the Big Ten, said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College who has written extensively about the sports industry. "But they’re hitting a few storms along the way.”

The Maryland budget figures — contained in annual financial reports to the NCAA — are from the fiscal year ending in June 2017, the last period for which such statistics are available. The reports contain a more detailed accounting of department revenue and expenses than is generally available.

Maryland Athletics Budget

Evans said the department is in a more secure financial position because of annual revenue sharing within the prosperous Big Ten. But he acknowledged that football ticket sales and fundraising were declining even before McNair's death and said the declines were related to the team's performance. Maryland entered this season with a 10-24 record in Big Ten games and just two winning seasons since 2011.

“Winning helps to cure a lot of woes financially, and that's what we're working toward," Evans said. "Football is not a quick turnaround. Football is something that takes time through recruiting, through getting enough classes in here where you position yourself to compete in a conference as significant as the Big Ten. I do believe we are on the right track with regard to that."

Ticket sales fell from $8 million in the 2016 fiscal year to $6.6 million in 2017. The $6.6 million total barely surpassed the $6.4 million the team recorded in its final season in the Atlantic Coast Conference, which the university fled for more money and exposure. Contributions to athletics — not just football — fell from $13.7 million to $12.2 million.

The university left the ACC after 61 years for a more potent conference boasting football stadiums with nearly twice the capacity of Maryland's. The athletics department still owes the university about $43 million in what it calls "internal debt" — much of it as reimbursement for the $31 million it cost to leave the ACC, according to figures provided by the school.

Boosters predicted the conference shift would produce frequent sellouts at Maryland Stadium. While the financial report covering the 2018 fiscal year is not yet compiled, publicly available attendance records show a marked decline continuing into this season.

The Terps experienced an 8,000-fans-per-game boost during their debut Big Ten season in 2014, but the numbers have steadily fallen since. Average home game attendance hovered around 40,000 from 2015 to 2017, according to athletics department data. The stadium holds about 54,000.

Last year, Maryland’s average home game attendance was lower than it was in 2013, NCAA data show. Among Big Ten schools, only Northwestern and Illinois filled fewer seats in 2017.

This season, an average of about 33,700 attended the first three home games.

The team’s recruiting rankings are also suffering. Before McNair's death, Evans said, the school had made strides attracting top players. Before this year, he said, Maryland was credited with “two of the highest[-rated] recruiting classes in the history of Maryland football."

But now the football program’s coaching instability and negative press make recruiting a challenge, said Adam Friedman, a Mid-Atlantic recruiting analyst for Rivals.com.

The Terps “had a lot of momentum leading into the season,” he said, but that has all but disappeared.

“For this time of year, for a school like Maryland, for a team that’s beaten a team like Texas, there would be more recruiting momentum if there weren’t these off-the-field issues,” Friedman said.

Maryland’s recruiting class is tied for last in the Big Ten, according to Rivals.com’s 2019 rankings, behind teams it has beaten this season.

On Aug. 11 — the day after a scathing ESPN report was published, detailing allegations of a toxic culture within the football program — three-star offensive lineman Parker Moorer became the first to decommit from Maryland.

The success of college football recruitment efforts often hinges on convincing a player’s parents that the program will nurture their son’s talents and health. Speaking on national television shortly after McNair’s death in June, his parents said they sent their son to Maryland’s football program, trusting the staff would “keep him safe.”

“They did anything but,” Martin McNair said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

That will likely give parents pause.

“Mom has to sign off on any decision," Friedman said. "Seeing that a child was — that Jordan McNair lost his life — that's a significant red flag to any parent. Convincing Mom right now has to be one of the biggest challenges for the coaching staff.”

The school said it remains to be seen how recruiting will fare in the future. University President Wallace D. Loh has publicly said the school took “legal and moral responsibility” for mistakes in treating McNair, and he brought in an outside consultant to review what happened that day.

Even before Loh was hired in 2010, Maryland had spent big on capital projects to try to lift football. It is still paying debt service on Tyser Tower, a $50.8 million football stadium modernization project with new mezzanine seats and luxury suites with flat-screen televisions that opened in 2009. The tower was built despite a university consultant's warning that — unlike football programs in rural areas — Maryland faced stiff competition for fan dollars from the NFL's Ravens and Washington Redskins as well as from other professional franchises.

Before it decided to join the Big Ten, Maryland launched a rebranding effort to try to forge a greater connection with the state.

The football uniforms and field markings — which, in earlier years, had highlighted the word "Terps" — now more prominently display "Maryland," much as the University of Texas football team features "Texas" on its uniforms.

It was no coincidence that Maryland's flashiest uniforms, which debuted in 2011, were called "Maryland Pride."

But the biggest football expenditure of recent years is the $196 million Cole Field House center, which houses a new indoor practice facility for football and was funded with private gifts, state funds and Big Ten revenues. It opened in 2017.

Competing against the Big Ten's established football powers, Maryland might have felt it needed to play "catch-up," analysts said.

“When people move to this level, they get a little crazy because they like the idea of being in a Power Five conference, of being part of a Big Ten experience," said Karen Weaver, a sports management professor at Drexel University . "You want to prove you belong, and I’m sure the players felt that as well. It seems like they went too far.”

Weaver, who wrote her dissertation on the Big Ten Network, said she understands why Maryland was drawn to the conference, lured by promises of a revenue stream much larger than that coming from the ACC.

Loh said in 2014 that shared Big Ten revenues would mean roughly $10 million more per year for Maryland than if it remained in the ACC.

It could not be confirmed if that has played out. But the school received a $37.3 million Big Ten distribution in 2017, the records show, which was substantially higher than what it was receiving in the ACC. When Maryland becomes a fully vested conference member in 2021, school officials said, the university will receive what the longer-term members are projected to make — more than $50 million a year.

The annual distribution is critical to balancing the athletic department's operating budget, which the school said showed a $475,000 surplus in the fiscal year ending in June 2017. As recently as 2012, the university had budget problems so severe that it eliminated seven teams.

"Moving to the Big Ten was obviously a much larger — if you want to call it — payday," Evans said. "The athletic department was in need of additional sources of revenue, and this provided that opportunity."

But analysts wonder about relying on football in the long term. There are concerns about the sport's future given recent studies on the effect of repeated collisions on the brain. Youth participation in the sport has been declining. And highly publicized tragedies like McNair’s death don’t help convince parents it’s safe to let their sons play football.

“There’s something about football that is starting to turn people off,” Weaver said. “It’s not trending in the right direction, but I don’t know folks in higher education know any other way to fund athletics.”

Zimablist said the Terps face a more immediate challenge.

"To keep your fan base interested, you have to have a winning team,” he said. “People have to go to the stadium thinking, ‘We have a chance to win today.’”

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