Analysis: Will UMd. Move to Big 10?

There’s no shortage of opinion and speculation on Maryland’s potential move to the Big 10, a story first reported by InsideMDSports last week. Let’s take a look at all of the factors in play and reach a conclusion on whether this monumental transition will become reality.

--- Maryland’s athletic department faces a steep deficit, the result of a confluence of factors – such as previous athletic director Debbie Yow’s excessive spending on non-revenue sports and the ill-fated Byrd Stadium expansion, the economy’s downturn, and an ACC-wide attendance lag. Despite cutting numerous non-revenue sports in an effort to dig out of the hole, this deficit is expected to grow to more than $17 million by 2017.

Multiple sources have told IMS the potential windfall from a move to the Big 10 would help Maryland get out of the red quickly. One estimate has Maryland gaining roughly $16 million in athletics revenue annually, with significantly more coming on the academic side.

--- But what about that $50 million exit fee? The ACC recently voted to increase the exit penalty to $50 million for any school abandoning the conference, seemingly an impossible obstacle for anyone looking to bolt. But Maryland, which was one of two schools to vote against the hike, will likely seek to mitigate that fee legally. Multiple sources with knowledge of the situation said university officials believe they’ll likely be able to escape with a payment close to the original $20 million figure.

Regardless, it's not expected to keep Maryland from making the move.

--- On the Board of Regents vote … This decision goes beyond athletic director Kevin Anderson or anyone else working in Comcast Center. Maryland’s regents will likely vote on the move Monday morning. University president Wallace Loh was expected to hold a conference call with regents today, a move some characterized as a consensus-building exercise aimed at avoiding discord.

--- The Big 10 desperately wants Maryland. This is an overlooked aspect. Money and security are important, of course, but many have long viewed the ACC as a good old boys network catering to its home base first and everyone else last. Of course, the attraction isn’t superficial; the Big 10 sees Maryland as an avenue to expand its footprint toward the East Coast and increase TV revenue by grabbing the Nos. 9 (Washington, D.C.) and 26 (Baltimore) TV markets.

--- Who could join Maryland? Rutgers has been widely reported as being most likely to join Maryland in the Big 10. Sources also told IMS Georgia Tech would like to join. But we've also been told that the top remaining targets are North Carolina and Virginia.

--- Academics and Federal Research Grants Many observers have long held that Maryland administrators view the school as being more aligned with the Big 10’s profile – specifically, large state universities with major research initiatives -- than the ACC’s. The Big 10 has been a leader in obtaining federal research grants. This is an understated aspect of the story.

A move to the Big 10 could make Turgeon's job harder.

--- What would Gary do? Few are better suited to offer an opinion on the possible move than former Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams, who spent time in the Big 10, at Ohio State, and was a vital figure in the evolution of Maryland’s basketball program – and by relation, its athletic department. Williams, who long railed against the ACC for what he perceived as a Carolina bias, favors the move. His opinion carries weight in university circles.

--- There’s no denying the Big 10‘s money-making acumen. Between 2006 and 2010, five of the NCAA’s 11 highest-grossing athletic departments were Big 10 members. The conference was proactive in creating its own television network, which pays member schools roughly $25 million annually, compared to the ACC’s $17 million-per-school ESPN deal. Those residuals would seemingly increase with Maryland and another school -- or three -- adding to the pool.

--- What would Turgeon do? Men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon hasn’t spoken about it publicly, but it’s safe to presume he wouldn’t be thrilled with the move. Turgeon long relished to the idea of coaching in the ACC rather than the football-crazed Big 12; the Big 10 is also viewed as a football conference and the move might create challenges recruiting homegrown and regional talent, forcing him to focus more on the Midwestern states. And it would certainly make travel more difficult.

Would prompt him to seek employment elsewhere? We can't speak for him, but that seems unlikely and here's why.

--- The fan impact. Since the story broke, many Maryland fans have expressed distaste for the possible defection, often citing the ACC’s basketball tradition and Maryland’s regional ties to – and rivalries with – its ACC brethren. Will officials consider the potential backlash before making a final decision? Certainly. Will it be the deciding factor? No.

Maryland’s attendance numbers and athletic donations have lagged in recent years.It's a passionate fanbase, but the bottom line is the bottom line. Maryland’s Terrapin Club booster organization has roughly 8,000 members. By comparison, ACC rival N.C. State’s club boasts 20,000, and Big 10 member Penn State’s got more than 21,000.

Money doesn't necessarily obscure loyalty, but Maryland's athletic department is not flush with power-broker boosters with collective power to block the move.

--- Football drives the bus. Maryland football is in the middle of a down cycle, and it would take significant improvements in order for the Terps to compete for a top spot in the Big 10. But again, there’s no escaping the financial reality of college athletics; according to this report, just three of the 30 most profitable college sports programs in 2010-2011 were basketball programs. Maryland basketball reportedly ranked 75th overall, behind middling Big 10 football programs like Indiana, Northwestern and Purdue.

And while many objectors point to the ACC’s reputation as a basketball conference and the Big 10’s football-heavy branding, the Big 10 has long led the nation in basketball attendance.

CONCLUSION: Were Maryland not in such tenuous shape financially, it might be more feasible to envision the school staying put to maintain its tradition and geographical context. And while that remains a possibility, our prediction is the school strikes a deal to leave the ACC for the Big 10.

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