It hasn’t been a good start to the holiday for traditional sports fans, particularly the many of us who look first to the Atlantic Coast Conference for our weekend fix.
On Tuesday, Maryland, one of the charter members of the ACC, announced it was leaving for Big Ten Country — and the money. In fairness to Maryland, the university’s hand was forced by a financial crisis that led it in July to drop seven of its 27 sports — men’s tennis, women’s water polo, men’s and women’s swimming, acrobatics and tumbling, men’s cross country and men’s indoor track and field. Maryland officials say they expect to return those sports soon.
If that happens, credit the Big Ten’s television contract, the most lucrative in collegiate sports and the reason Maryland is looking westward. Rutgers will follow Maryland to the Big Ten, which will bring in another new market, New Jersey and New York, and make the television contract even more robust.
The money is why Maryland is willing to eat a $50 million exit fee from the ACC, which it and Florida State voted against adopting and Maryland will now try to negotiate downward.
But the move also means that Terp teams will be traveling longer distances for road contests, which could mean fewer fans in the seats for those games, perhaps causing apathy and an expensive ripple effect. Nebraska is a long way to go to freeze during a football game. So the move is not a slam dunk.
The loss is a major one for the Atlantic Coast Conference, which contracts to 11 teams — if only for a while.
Maryland has a rich athletic history, with national championships in both basketball and football. Some of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s most stories basketball times were when Terp Coach Lefty Driesell was stomping the sidelines in the early and mid-1970s trying to defeat Dean Smith’s Tar Heels and Norm Sloan’s Wolfpack, a period when those teams were routinely ranked among the nation’s top 5.
The ACC’s future, while less certain, is far from bleak.
The league recently announced that Notre Dame was coming on board in all sports except football and hockey. In football, the Irish don’t want to share their TV money, and there is no ACC competition in hockey.
Syracuse and Pittsburgh are joining the ACC, and the conference will go looking for a replacement for Maryland, and, most likely, a 16th member to keep the divisions, the Coastal and the Atlantic, balanced at eight teams each.
The ACC keeps plenty of bullets, the basketball programs at Duke University and the University of North Carolina, and a resurgent N.C. State hoops program, Florida State and Clemson in football, and the around-the-world reach of Notre Dame.
Those are bargaining chips when the ACC goes shopping for its own television deal.
But what was made clear this week is that college athletics is in a transition period, that money, not geography, draws the lines for conferences, and those conferences and universities that don’t aggressively chart their future have a lot to lose — and we aren’t talking about on the scoreboard.