There’s no turning back now. Maryland and Rutgers, as of today, are members of the Big Ten, stretching a conference long contained to the Midwest plains all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.
By expanding from 12 to 14 schools, the Big Ten gets bigger, but will this make the conference better? Will the massive television markets and expanded recruiting landscape outweigh any negatives that come along with two struggling athletic departments? Those are questions that will take years to answer, and conference Commissioner Jim Delany’s legacy is riding on it.
“Our commissioner’s a pretty smart man,” Gophers football coach Jerry Kill said. “I think he’s thinking outside the box. You think about the media markets, it’s going to make it a national conference. Financially, it helps all the schools.”
This move brings a local presence in both the New York and Baltimore/Washington D.C., media markets — Rutgers is in Piscataway, N.J., essentially a southwest New York City suburb, and Maryland is eight miles from D.C. in College Park. The Big Ten estimates that Minnesota and the other 11 members before this expansion will pull in $44.5 million in conference revenue sharing by 2018. That would be up from $27 million this year.
But unlike the Big Ten’s two most recent expansions — Penn State in 1990 and Nebraska in 2011 — it’s harder to make the case this one enhances the Big Ten brand, especially in big-revenue sports. Maryland went 13-24 in its past three football seasons. Its men’s basketball team won the 2002 national title but hasn’t made the NCAA tournament the past four seasons. Rutgers has sputtered in football since former coach Greg Schiano left for the NFL, and the men’s basketball team hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament since 1991.
Both athletics departments were hemorrhaging money and had recently cut sports before the Big Ten threw them a lifeline in the fall of 2012, responding to other shifts in the conference landscape. The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) had just added Syracuse and Pittsburgh, while convincing Notre Dame to join as a partial member. Delany had long coveted Notre Dame and knew he couldn’t wait any longer. The Big Ten studied the population shifts and realized it was about to get dwarfed by other conferences.
“We had a choice of either staying pat, or being bold and aggressive moving forward,” said Brad Traviolia, the Big Ten’s deputy commissioner. “Given the choices, we felt we were at greater risk staying pat as 12 institutions.
“We felt we needed to expand and be active in two areas of the country. Both Maryland and Rutgers are quality institutions. We think it really benefits them, and we think the conference will benefit from their membership greatly.”
‘Bentley for a Buick’
Johnny Holliday has been the radio voice of Maryland football and men’s basketball since 1979. He shrugged off the first rumors that the Terrapins could be leaving the ACC for the Big Ten.
“I said it’s never going to happen,” he said. “And then when it happened, it was shock and disbelief to everybody because it happened so quickly.”
Maryland was a charter member of the ACC in 1953, and Terrapins fans had been immersed in those rivalries, especially with North Carolina and Duke. Kristi Toliver, a member of Maryland’s 2006 NCAA championship women’s basketball team, tweeted, “The big 10? That’s like exchanging your Bentley for a Buick.”
But 19 months have passed since the news first broke. The financial implications are more clear. Maryland had spent $175 million to upgrade athletic facilities, riding the basketball wave and the football team’s 31-8 record under then-coach Ralph Friedgen from 2001 to ’03. Those teams nose-dived, and the athletic department ran a $7.8 million deficit in 2010. Seven sports were cut, including the men’s and women’s swimming teams.
“It was certainly the worst day ever around here,” said Maryland associate athletics director Ryan Bowles.
After launching the Big Ten Network to great success in 2007, the nation’s oldest Division I conference decided it could help. Maryland could have received about $20 million from the ACC for this coming year, but the Big Ten offered $32 million as part of a front-loaded, six-year integration plan.
“I think as soon as the shock wore off, for me, I could sit back and understand why [Maryland] did this,” Holliday said. “With the financial situation and the reputation of the Big Ten — not only athletically, but academically — it was kind of like, ‘We’ve got to do this.’ ”
A move into NYC
Rutgers desperately needed a boost, too. Budget issues led the New Jersey school to cut six sports in 2006, but the athletics department continued spending on facilities. Shrinking donations following a recent basketball scandal led to an NCAA worst $47.3 million deficit for 2012-13.
Former men’s basketball coach Mike Rice was caught on video abusing players and uttering slurs in practice, but the school didn’t dismiss him until after ESPN aired the video. Rutgers then fired popular athletics director Tim Pernetti, who had helped negotiate entry into the Big Ten. To replace Pernetti, it hired Julie Hermann, who had been described as an abusive coach herself by her former volleyball players at Tennessee. To replace Rice, the school hired Eddie Jordan, only later realizing he hadn’t earned his college degree.
The public relations disasters didn’t stop there. Rutgers thought it was getting its quarterback of the future when former Gopher Philip Nelson transferred there in January. But Nelson was charged with first- and third-degree assault of former Minnesota State Mankato football player Isaac Kolstad. Rutgers promptly dismissed Nelson, who faces up to 20 years in prison.
Hoping for a boost
The hope in New Jersey is that a new chapter begins now. Rutgers joined the Big East in 1991 and migrated with other former Big East teams into the American Athletic Conference (AAC) last year, awaiting this next move. Officials estimate that the Big Ten will provide Rutgers an additional $200 million over the next 12 years.
“We’re seeing a boost in donations and giving because of our Big Ten membership,” Hermann wrote in an e-mail. “Football season ticket sales are up significantly. We’ve already seen tremendous benefits from the move because of the response from our fanbase.”
But some are still surprised the Big Ten came calling.
“I was amazed by that offer,” said Bob Stanicki, a former Rutgers tennis captain who served as an assistant coach before the team was cut. “I can just assume they were looking to get into the New York market, and Rutgers was one of their only options. But it’s on the fringe. I think maybe the Big Ten is overvaluing Rutgers’ dynamic within that market.”
“You have the Giants and Jets and a bunch of professional sports teams that you’re competing against.”
In a New York Times blog, statistician Nate Silver posted research showing that of the 20 million residents in the New York market, only about 3 percent are Rutgers football fans. However, that’s still about 600,000 potential TV viewers.
The Big Ten Network already has successfully negotiated to get its channel on the expanded basic cable packages in the New York and Baltimore/Washington markets. This increased the network’s reach to 60 million homes, up from 52 million.
Big Ten schools also hope this expansion will help recruiting. According to Sports Illustrated, the nine-state Big Ten footprint before the expansion holds just 32 of the 325 highest-rated recruits in the 2015 class. Expand the area to include New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia and Washington D.C., and that adds another 32 elite recruits.
The Big Ten headquarters are still in Chicago, but the conference has added a New York office and plans to hold the 2017 men’s basketball tournament in Washington.
“We realize there’s a balancing act; we can’t forget our roots,” Traviolia said. “We still have the majority of our institutions in the Midwest and we don’t intend to put all our eggs in the East Coast basket.”