The University of Maryland announced Monday that it is abandoning the Atlantic Coast Conference, the league it helped found in 1953, for the Big Ten, a move that was rumored to be in the works last week and came to sudden fruition yesterday afternoon.
The reactions to Maryland’s moves were swift and strong and negative, mostly focused on the lost traditions that would ensue from Maryland’s move to the Midwest. Gone are the Terrapins’ fabled Tobacco Road basketball rivalries with Duke and North Carolina, and gone too is whatever semblance of tradition Maryland had established in other sports. The reality, though, is that this was little more than a business decision, and in the business of college sports, tradition and the nostalgia that goes with it simply doesn’t matter because only money does.
Maryland needs money and the Big Ten has it. The Big Ten has money and Maryland will only make it more.
When the Big Ten created its own television network in 2007, it gained the ability to charge subscriber fees to cable companies that wanted to carry the network in certain states. Maryland will allow it to expand that network and those fees into Washington D.C. and Baltimore, two populated East Coast markets it didn’t have. It hopes the addition of Rutgers will do the same for New York City (remember, the fees aren’t based on how many people watch, but on how many cable subscribers there are).
Maryland is a financial winner too. The school’s athletic department has been swimming in red ink for more than a decade, but the move to the Big Ten will make it an extra $100 million in conference revenues between now and 2020. Nostalgia and tradition and the rivalries of old might be nice, but they don’t pay for the seven non-revenue sports Maryland cut last year because of budgetary concerns, and they surely don’t bring in an extra $100 million. There simply isn’t an argument that this isn’t a smart move from the university’s standpoint, not when it, like any other State U., has felt the crunch of state budgets in recent years and had to raise both tuition and taxes to keep the school operating.
That money is the ultimate factor in a decision like this doesn’t seem lost on anyone. Where critics go wrong, though, is in suggesting that tradition and nostalgia and fan concerns ever had a place in these types of discussions. At the big schools, in the big conferences, college athletics is a business, and a rapidly growing one worth millions to schools and billions to organizations like the Big Ten. When we buy into the idea that nostalgia, tradition, and what fans want are considerations in a move like Maryland’s, we’re buying what the NCAA wants to sell: that there is a level of purity and innocence to college sports. There isn’t, even if the NCAA hides its business behind its (empty) pledges to academics and its (even emptier) pledges to amateurism. As long as fans ignore the money-grubbing side and are buying tickets, as long as players are willing to play for relative peanuts, and as long as we allow the self-aggrandizing pitches toward amateurism and academics to continue, it will keep doing so.
Maryland’s move isn’t shocking, nor is it dumb. The school needs money and it found a bunch. And the people in charge aren’t ignoring fans, nostalgia, or tradition any more than they always have. They are listening to money, the only thing that matters. Be mad that college sports is a big business if you like. Just don’t pretend it isn’t one.