Sometimes you say foolish things. An hour or two before Saturday night’s kickoffs in Eugene and in Waco, I sent an email saying that the Big Ten’s reported pursuit of Maryland and Rutgers had become the big story of the day, something that annoyingly overshadowed the actual football. Why don’t these things happen in the middle of the week, or, better yet, the middle of the offseason?
Of course, I spoke way too soon, and in the next few hours, No. 1 Kansas State and No. 2 Oregon would both fall (while West Virginia and Oklahoma played a thoroughly entertaining 50-49 shootout as well) and Notre Dame would move to the top. The Big Ten became a side story, again, and maybe that’s because it is reportedly set to add Maryland and Rutgers.
Before we start talking about economics, let’s try to justify the Big Ten adding Maryland and Rutgers based on their merits as football teams, athletic departments and universities, the things we wish were responsible for conference realignment. Both Maryland and Rutgers are well-regarded members of the Association of American Universities, a group of research universities that includes the entire Big Ten except Nebraska (which was removed shortly after joining the league), so all is good there. They fit the academic profile of the Big Ten as large public research institutions. But, about the sports …
Maryland has won one ACC football title since 1985. It’s an original member of the ACC, dating back to 1953, and its roots as a basketball-first school lie in rivalries with the schools of Tobacco Road. The only reason to jump is money, and despite its status as a wannabe Oregon with Under Amour’s Kevin Plank attempting to be the Phil Knight of College Park, Maryland’s athletic department is in desperate need of increased revenue.
Rutgers was a national joke, one of the worst football programs in America for decades, despite being the school that started the entire sport with the famous game against Princeton in 1869. But the Scarlet Knights found life in the last decade behind Greg Schiano, and Rutgers has made a massive financial commitment and marketing push to improve the reputation and on-field success of its football team. They’ve yet to win a Big East title or appear in a BCS bowl (although that could change this year), but they’ve at least become respectable, a team that could immediately insert itself in the middle of the pack and possibly better. Theoretically, Maryland could be a mid-tier Big Ten team with the potential to grow too, although right now it would be fighting Illinois for the label of biggest pushover.
It’s safe to say that neither is going to excite the rest of the Big Ten, because Nebraska won’t want to see a conference game with Ohio State replaced by Maryland, and Wisconsin won’t want to see a game with Michigan replaced by Rutgers. Is it desirable for a premier conference like the Big Ten to expand unless it’s getting a home run brand like Nebraska?
It may be, if you own a wildly successful and profitable TV network. I’ve never been a fan of the markets argument, particularly in regards to New York. While Rutgers has a significant number of fans in New York City, it is still not a college sports town -- and there’s a difference, generally speaking, between casual Rutgers fans in the city and rabid Alabama/Nebraska/Texas A&M fans elsewhere, ones who will consume everything their school puts out there.
But the goal is access to TV sets. The goal is for the Big Ten Network to expand to basic cable tiers in New Jersey, with its population of nearly nine million, and in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore and the surrounding area. It’s also possible it will expand into New York, where NewsCorp -- part owner of Big Ten Network -- is attempting to get a stake in the YES Network and expand its portfolio of sports networks. BTN is on basic packages for many people in the conference’s footprint, meaning you’re paying for it even if you don’t want it. It all adds up to enormous money.
If that doesn’t make the Big Ten rich enough, it’s also looking to capture bigger markets for its upcoming TV rights deal, one that will dwarf most other conferences when first-tier rights hit the market in 2017. The Big Ten already makes enormous sums of money, sums that dwarf the ACC and Big East, but it has yet to cash in on the escalation in TV rights fees over the last several years, and commissioner Jim Delany is attempting to position the league to do so in a big way.
Both Maryland and Rutgers have had painful economic problems in their athletic departments, so, financially, a move to the Big Ten is a no-brainer. Rutgers in particular is surely begging to get out of the unstable Big East, which has seen almost everyone else leave, because it’s in danger of having its participation in college football’s arms race go to waste if it’s left behind. For Rutgers, there’s nothing to even think about. Maryland, more than anything, needs the money. Otherwise, it could stay in the ACC and keep easy access to the new-look playoff format while maintaining its basketball ties to Duke and North Carolina.
It’s never been a secret how much of an influence money has on college athletics. It’s just that the influence becomes clearer and appears to grow exponentially every season. TV money is everything, which is why the Big Ten Network exists, why the Pac-12 followed suit, why the SEC will soon, why there’s a playoff, why there will eventually be a larger playoff, why conferences can’t stop reshuffling.
It’s why we’re at a point where Maryland and Rutgers will be in a conference with Minnesota and Iowa. Strap yourselves in, because here we go again. If these dominoes fall, there will be more -- Connecticut maybe replacing Maryland in the ACC, the Big East frantically scrambling to stay together as always, Florida State and Clemson possibly looking elsewhere. Nothing’s ever totally off the table. For all we know, the Big Ten won’t be done.
We’re all forced to adapt, ready to watch old rivalries collapse all in the name of cable packages. So, let’s just accept the inevitable, and get ready to watch those mid-October noon kickoffs between Maryland and Purdue on Big Ten Network, coming to a local cable provider near you.