Wallace Loh did not mince words when he took the microphone in Stamp Student Union’s Atrium yesterday afternoon. The university president didn’t beat around the bush, and he didn’t make any attempts to hide what this university’s move from the ACC to the Big Ten conference was all about.
The reason this university is joining the Big Ten is money. And it’s definitely not about sports.
Loh’s comments said as much yesterday. Some of his first words were, “By being members of the Big Ten conference, we will be able to ensure the financial stability of Maryland athletics for decades.”
Financial stability. Not a boon to athletic success, fan support or ticket sales. Stability.
Joining the Big Ten isn’t about watching Terrapins athletics thrive, or even about continuing down the path they’re already on. It’s simply about keeping the athletic department afloat.
The Big Ten is a revenue-sharing conference, so each league member receives the same share of earnings each fiscal year. So when the Terps join in 2014, it won’t matter if they sell 54 football tickets or 54,000. They’re going to get the same share as heavyweights Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, no matter what.
With the potential of so much profit, the fact that nearly every Terps team — at least any of the ones fans truly care about — is downgrading to a conference significantly worse in its sport probably wasn’t even considered.
Sure, you could argue football is getting an upgrade. The ACC has long been considered one of the worst BCS conferences in the sport, and the Big Ten is thought to be among the best. The Buckeyes, Wolverines and Nittany Lions, along with programs such as Iowa, Michigan State and Wisconsin, do make up one of the country’s most power-packed football leagues.
But coach Randy Edsall’s Terps have struggled to compete against the likes of Boston College and Wake Forest — ACC bottom-feeders — and the team is just 33-46 in conference play over the past 10 seasons. If that’s its track record in a normally weak ACC, how do you think it will fare in the bigger and badder Big Ten? Probably not well.
Football is the sport most likely to see a boost, yet “probably not well” seems like it’s the best it can do. It’s going to be even worse for the rest of the university’s sports teams.
Men’s basketball goes from a conference that was quickly turning into the SEC of college basketball to a conference that’s, well, boring. Gone are high-octane local rivalries against Duke, North Carolina and Virginia,and here are plodding matchups with Minnesota, Illinois and, (if the rumors turn out to be true) perhaps worst of all, fellow new Big Ten member Rutgers.
The situation is just as dire for the school’s nonrevenue sports. The women’s basketball team will suffer the same fate as its male counterpart, and the men’s soccer, women’s soccer and field hockey teams will go from elite teams in the nation’s best conference to elite teams in a middling athletic league.
And nobody has it worse than the Terps’ men’s and women’s lacrosse teams. The ACC has been the epicenter of college lacrosse for years, and with new additions Syracuse and Notre Dame joining a conference already boasting the Tar Heels, Blue Devils and Cavaliers, the ACC had a chance to feature six of the nation’s 10 best teams year after year.
But in switching leagues, the Terps go from playing in the most competitive conference to playing in a conference that doesn’t even exist yet. The Big Ten lacrosse league is still more an idea than a reality, and Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and likely Rutgers are its only members that currently feature Division I-level lacrosse.
But the level of competition isn’t the Terps’ biggest problem in their transition. No, the biggest problem is going to come from the students, alumni and fans whom the university is still going to count on to support its programs.
The Terps are founding members of the ACC and have been in the conference for 59 years, and the traditions they have built aren’t lost on fans, young or old. Alumni still cherish the longtime rivalry with Virginia, and students still gear up fervently for basketball games against hated Duke.
Will alumni feel the same way about forced geographical rivalries with Penn State and Rutgers? Will students spend all winter attending blowout nonconference wins just to get basketball tickets for the big Purdue game? Both seem unlikely.
That’s not Loh’s concern, though. It doesn’t matter if there are more opponent fans than Terps fans in Byrd Stadium or Comcast Center; the money the school brings in is going to end up being the same no matter who’s there to watch the games.
And yes, that money will help the athletic department. It will allow it to increase its recruiting budget, better its facilities and improve the lives of its student-athletes. It might even let it reinstate some of the seven teams it cut last year.
But at what cost? The guaranteed revenue stream is great, but is it worth alienating an entire fan base and alumni network while simultaneously making many Terps sports teams take a competitive step down?
In the long run, it probably is. And maybe the move will help the university morph into the athletic and academic power Loh hopes it will become.
But with all its traditions already dead, the fans who have stuck by this university for so long might not stick around to see Loh’s vision become reality.