It is Hate Week, but I figure I might as well say something about the latest conference realignment discussion, du jour. Just as we thought conference realignment was gone forever, it’s the B1G TEN that’s making the news in November with reports that the conference is in discussion to push east and add Maryland and Rutgers to the B1G TEN. A season and a half into its most recent expansion of membership, and the B1G TEN is thinking of adding two more.
First, obviously, Maryland and Rutgers are fantastic universities that offer quality education at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Faculty at both institutions are engaging in cutting edge research in their respective fields, which leads to National Science Foundation grants and publications in leading peer-reviewed scholarly periodicals. Whereas both universities are members of the Association of American Universities (AAU), their membership in the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) would not raise a quizzical eyebrow. For those unaware, the CIC is the academic wing of the B1G TEN, also including the University of Chicago (a former B1G TEN program). Pooling resources with leading research institutions like the University of Michigan, Northwestern University, The Ohio State University, and Penn State University, among everyone else, would better the lot of the academic collective in the Midwest. While I’m a little bit uncertain what exactly these schools do that the existing CIC schools don’t already do, membership, in this regard, at least makes sense. The Washington Post, for example, said the University of Maryland would benefit from access to some of the agricultural and engineering research done in the CIC, and I don’t doubt the CIC schools, viz, the B1G TEN, would maybe benefit from Maryland’s overlapping involvement in the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area. This might allow faculty members at B1G TEN universities better access to resources in our country’s capital, albeit indirectly (possibly).
Ultimately, addition to the B1G TEN is germane to the athletic endeavors of these universities, in terms of the overall quality of the product on the field of play and the revenue that can be generated from it. In that regard, I am very skeptical that there is any value added from Maryland and Rutgers. I don’t doubt that Maryland and Rutgers would immediately improve the quality of women’s basketball in the B1G TEN, something for which I care strongly. However, women’s basketball is a non-revenue sport now and will be in the future. Football is what generates revenue for every program in major college sports, even those that self identify more as a “basketball school”. In that regard, what intrigue is there in adding Maryland and Rutgers?
Maryland has 11 conference championships in 116 years of football (and one national championship: 1953), making it comparable to Purdue which has 12 conference championships in 125 years of football. For all intents and purposes, Maryland has been no better than a team that can consistently make a December bowl game four out of every five or six years. Does adding Maryland to a B1G TEN, which already struggles with the quality of its signature brand, suddenly improve Maryland football? It is hard to imagine any scenario where membership in more of a “football conference” (if we humor ourselves) behooves Maryland’s alumni and important boosters to invest more in the success of the football team. Under Armour couldn’t turn Maryland into a conference elite in the ACC. Without assuming the B1G TEN is “better” at football than the ACC, I’m not sure anyone should expect anything different. Adding Maryland to the B1G TEN is akin to adding another Purdue.
Rutgers “looks better” than Maryland of late, but Rutgers’ overall commitment to football has much, much worse than the effort that Maryland has put forward. The first program to play college football, or the primitive version of it, Rutgers claims the first ever national championship in football in 1869. It has done jack since then. In 143 years of college football, Rutgers has three conference championships and an overall program record just 15 games above .500. Its three conference championships come from the Middle Atlantic Conference, in which it was a member from 1958 to 1961. It won three conference championships in its four years in the conference, beating programs like Princeton, Connecticut, Bucknell, Lehigh, Pennsylvania, Lafayette, Delaware, Colgate, and Columbia. Playing in just one bowl game before 2005 (a 34-18 loss to Arizona State in the 1978 Garden State Bowl), Rutgers is a non-entity in college football. Though the Scarlet Knights are on pace to win the Big East this year, despite its one loss on the season (to a MAC team, Kent State), there is nothing in the Scarlet Knights’ season that suggests this is anything but an aberration. Rutgers is a marginally more winning Indiana Hoosiers football program.
While it is easy to point to the dearth of success for Maryland and Rutgers football and question if either fan base would notice or care if the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights started sucking indefinitely, the lack of success for these programs seems to come hand in hand with overall significant financial shortcomings that I’m surprised do not alarm the B1G TEN brass more. Maryland has become a bit of a horror story for the outsized nature of college athletics. In short, Maryland has problems that do not affect Ohio State, which has the largest public athletic department in the country, and Michigan, which is also a very lucrative program. In trying to compete with the success of the Clemsons, Florida States, and North Carolinas of the ACC, Maryland entered the facilities arms race that programs like Ohio State and Michigan could win with ease. With a $55-$60 million budget (basically would be the smallest among the public B1G TEN schools), 25% of which is subsidized by the state of Maryland, the athletic department at Maryland began construction on stadium upgrades to Byrd Stadium and built the Comcast Arena to house its basketball program. It banked on the idea that these facilities, which area always a huge drain on athletic department budgets, would pay for themselves with increased ticket sales and booster donations. However, ticket sales plunged with the (unsurprisingly) unimproved quality of football at Maryland and donations have not been forthcoming. As a result, Maryland’s athletic department is running record deficits that are threatening to be as high as $17 million in five years. This coincides with a time of considerable austerity measures nationwide at the state level, as Maryland public officials are seeing that a 25% subsidy to an outsized athletic department is hard to justify. As a result, Maryland is recommending the dissolution of eight varsity programs, and that won’t even stop the bleeding.
Rutgers’ situation is essentially equivalent, though the subsidy issue looms larger. Rutgers’ revenue and expenses are comparable to Maryland’s situation, but the program receives a 47% subsidy from the state government/university, good for about $28.5 million. The faculty at Rutgers overwhelmingly resent the way that the athletic department consumes money just to hemorrhage it, leading to the athletic department to pass the buck to the students as well. In an attempt to improve on some recent success Rutgers had when it had players like Ray Rice, Brian Leonard, and Mike Teel, Rutgers spent liberally on football to try to advance to the next level. The next level of success never materialized, but the soaring deficits did materialize and still plague Rutgers’ budget.
You’ll notice the pattern here. Unlike Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and Nebraska (for example), the demand for Rutgers football and Maryland football is not inelastic. Ohio State could have an inadequate season in 2011 and be on probation this year. Michigan can suck out loud in 2008. Penn State can be under an extended period of probation. Nebraska can have the frustrating end to the Callahan regime in 2007. In all cases, fans showed up and all four programs are (or will be) profitable. The demand for football — and, hence, the source of revenue for each program — is essentially inelastic to the price or the quality of the product. Those are the programs that increase the quality of the B1G TEN brand. When success does not follow for Maryland football, or Rutgers football, those fans flee. Without any meaningful tradition to suggest a strong commitment to being successful in football (and, thus, profitable), ticket receipts do not come and alumni and boosters do not deliver at fundraisers. What we saw in 2011 attendance is a symptom of the problem. Rutgers averaged 43,761 fans a game in a stadium that seats 52,454. Maryland averaged 42,355 fans a game in a stadium that seats 54,000. These are Illinois and Purdue levels of enthusiasm. Assuming that fans of the more active B1G TEN alumni bases in the DMV area (DC-Maryland-Virginia) and the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area will flood these games is a bit myopic. The novelty of attending the first B1G TEN game in the Beltway, or the first B1G TEN game in New Jersey (!!) disappears shortly. A taken-for-grantedness follows, leaving, still, the all-too-important issue of ticket receipts contingent on the unreliable quality of the home team, not the visiting fans and the conference at large.
The important issue at heart here is whether or not adding programs from Maryland or New Jersey will allow the Big Ten Network access into these areas. If successful, it would give the Big Ten Network greater visibility in the big markets of New York and DC. I don’t know why I have to keep saying this, but New Yorkers do not give a shit, not one, about the state of New Jersey. For that matter, New York is not a big audience for college football and the area is far more interested in the professional game than the college game. If the Big Ten Network really wanted “in” the New York market, it would add Notre Dame. This is obviously not happening. So, we’re limited to an argument about whether adding Maryland and Rutgers would give the B1G TEN access into New Jersey and DC, which is about 15 million people total (9 million in New Jersey and about 6 million in DMV). If so, and assuming the B1G TEN’s egalitarian revenue sharing, this would be about a $1 million addition to each B1G TEN’s lot from the conference. This is nice, though maybe not necessary. Implicit in this argument for adding Maryland and Rutgers is that the B1G TEN would have leverage over cable companies in these areas. What’s the pitch? We know New Yorkers don’t care about Rutgers football. Do Jersey people care about college football? Do Marylanders care about Terrapin football? Can Jim Delany approach cable companies in these areas and credibly bargain with “if you don’t add BTN to your basic cable package, your viewers will miss out on Rutgers/Maryland football”? It’s not clear these viewers were watching before the move to the B1G TEN, or if they’ll watch now. When, unsurprisingly given its history and financial shortcomings, Maryland and Rutgers become the Purdue and Illinois of the B1G TEN’s Eastern Seaboard and viewers change the channel, I’m not sure there’s any leverage to be had for the B1G TEN and Jim Delany in future negotiations.
This not even considering how Maryland, for example, will pay that $50 million ACC exit fee.1 If Jim Delany believes that B1G TEN Network and conference revenue can offset Maryland and Rutgers’ financial shortcomings, he’s essentially advocating that the B1G TEN replace the state government as the subsidy for these two programs. Whereas Nebraska is still waiting for its fair share of the pie, I’d be surprised if this didn’t make the Huskers’ program very curious.
With that in mind, if the B1G TEN expands to become the B1G T4N, my only hope is that a more intuitive divisional arrangement of west and east follows. A line can be drawn at the Indiana and Ohio border, moving Wisconsin and Illinois west and the two Michigans east. Because if we have to deal with deciding whether or not Maryland is Legends and Rutgers is Leaders? Well…
- Rutgers would have a $10 million exit fee, which would be easier for the B1G TEN to pay in exchange for reduced conference payouts during a probationary period. [↩]