Conference Realignment For Dummies: What Rutgers And Maryland’s Jump To The Big Ten Means

  • Glenn Davis

Thought colleges had finished frantically switching conferences and everyone was finally content where they were, confident that when the BCS shot its grand money cannon in their general direction, they’d scoop up their share of the scattered proceeds, rather than be killed instantly by the blow? Nonsense!

There is too much money potentially at stake for everyone involved to sit still, and that’s why we find ourselves at this newest crossroads: the “Big Ten” is about to become even more of a lie, set to add Maryland and Rutgers to arrive at a total of 14 teams. This is a huge development in an ever-huger story of the shifting landscape of major college athletics, and the piles of money that motivate said shifting. With that in mind, we thought it appropriate to put together a bit of a primer to catch you up on where things stand, conference-wise – and where they might be going.

So, are these Maryland and Rutgers moves official?

Pretty much. Maryland voted in favor of the move today and announced it this afternoon. Now, Rutgers will accept an invite and hold a press conference of its own tomorrow. All parties want this to happen. All that’s left is to make things officially official.

Let me throw in one wrinkle here, though: Rutgers is involved. Speaking from experience as the Rutgers fan/alum I am, if there were ever a fanbase who should treat a piece of monumentally good news – which, make no mistake, a Big Ten move would certainly be for Rutgers (more on that later) – with caution, Rutgers’ is it. With Rutgers in the picture, it’s not out of the question that a separate meteor will strike every Big Ten football stadium in the coming days, wiping them all off the map and making the rearrangement moot. All logical signs, though, point to the deal going off without a hitch.

So this deal’s being made because of money. How much money are we talking here?

Well, the actual amount won’t be settled for a while, but the potential numbers at stake here are massive – nine figures per year massive. The Big Ten’s logic in adding Rutgers and Maryland is to break into new markets – especially the Washington, D.C. and New York – which could potentially lead to a richer TV deal down the line:

There are an estimated 15 million available households in the New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington D.C. markets. If the Big Ten Network got on basic cable in all those places, which is an enormous long shot, the per-household figure by the time Rutgers and Maryland joined the league would project in the neighborhood of $1.25 per month. That would equate to about $200 million per year.

OK. So that probably won’t happen. But the SI story blockquoted above mentions an extra $100 million as a more achievable number. As far as what that would do:

It’s estimated that the Big Ten’s annual payout could increase to between $30-35 million per year, nearly double the ACC’s $17 million payout.

So, needless to say, from the Rutgers and Maryland side, the advantage to joining the Big Ten is getting their piece of that gigantic revenue pie. Money – it makes the college sports world go ’round (well, unless you’re actually the kids playing the games that help rake in all this cash).

Is it a no-brainer move for Maryland and Rutgers to leave their conferences?

For Rutgers: yes, absolutely, without question. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Rutgers fan who’s anything less than euphoric about the possibility of joining the Big Ten. The Big East, where Rutgers currently resides, has been a teetering-on-the-edge-of-collapse mess for years now. As this latest bit of conference shuffling clearly demonstrates, the days of its remaining conference members being raided are far from over (UConn and Louisville, you could be next to escape!), and to not only get out of that league but to take a huge step up in both academic and athletic prestige while also securing much more money for an athletic department that could use it? It’s nothing short of a bonanza.

For Maryland, things are a bit more complicated. While clearly not entirely stable, the ACC is in a much better spot than the Big East, and Maryland’s rivalries with the likes of Duke and North Carolina will fall by the wayside in favor of schools with which Maryland, for the most part, has little in common geographically. For Rutgers, this isn’t such a big issue, with Syracuse and Pitt on the way out of the Big East and schools like Houston and San Diego State on the way in. But Maryland had a decent setup where it was. It’s understandable that many fans would be against the move – and indeed, many are.

But Maryland needs money, and lots of it. As the above-quoted article said, there’s potential for a whole lot more of it in the Big Ten than there will be going forward in the ACC. That’s enough to make this move necessary, even if not everyone likes it.

Is this definitely going to work for the Big Ten?

This is where things get dicey. Introducing the league to big new TV markets could rain cash down on every Big Ten school until every president and every athletic director of every school in the league is Walter White, staring incredulously at exactly how lucrative his meth empire has been.

Or it could turn out that Maryland doesn’t bring in a whole lot of new interest, and that Rutgers’ place in the local sports pecking order is too low to move the needle. Look: again, I’m a Rutgers fan. It’s not easy for me to look at this objectively. But I know the New York market is about pro sports first and foremost. When you think football in this area, you think Giants and Jets. Basketball? Knicks and Nets. (Rutgers basketball over the last two decades is perhaps the single most mystifying non-success story in college sports, but that’s another story.) Rutgers is having an excellent season in football, and has been a solid program over the last half-decade. But there is a long way to go before it’s truly arrived in any meaningful way on the national scene – and, to an extent, on the local scene too.

With that said: the potential is there. The New York area isn’t what anyone would call a college football haven, but Rutgers at least seems to have more of a share of the fans there than anyone else. (Note: a critique of some of the previously-linked study’s methods can be found here.) Rutgers has played in the vast majority of the highest-rated college football games ever in the NYC area. And remember, the addition of Rutgers and Maryland is about TV more than anything else.

Even so, Rutgers isn’t a sure thing. The SI story linked earlier in this post noted that Maryland was seen as a safer bet, TV-eyeballs-added-wise, than Rutgers. The Big Ten is banking on the added allure of the Big Ten driving up interest in Rutgers just as the addition of Rutgers fans to the conference’s ecosystem will drive up interest in it. That’s the way this will work. That’s the way everyone involved will be taking showers looking like this. And it means that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is betting his conference’s future largely on what could be, rather than what already is.

Makes sense, I guess. So is realignment over now?

Almost certainly not. The Big East getting raided again likely means schools (like, say, Louisville, which already tried to bolt for the Big 12 but was ultimately passed over in favor of West Virginia) will be more desperate than ever to leave. The ACC will have to do some raiding of its own to replace Maryland – they’re reportedly looking to the Big East to do it. And who knows, maybe current ACC members (like, say, Florida State) will get restless, try to scrounge up enough cash to pay the conference’s $50 million exit fee, and beg for an out. Oh, and I wouldn’t bet on the Big Ten stopping at 14 teams, either.

Does the further expansion mean the Big Ten gets rid of those stupid division names?

Alas, doesn’t look like it.

So it’s all about money, and not much about colleges.

That’s right.

Hell, just before you said “teams” instead of “schools” when describing the entities in the Big Ten.

Good point.

Meanwhile, through all this, the college kids who are playing the games and making all this revenue possible won’t see a dime of spending money out of the whole thing. Is it possible to be a fan of major college sports and not feel dirty?

Not as far as I can tell, no.

Does that mean you’ll be any less of a fan now?

Not a chance. I’ve been all-in with Rutgers sports for this long, when they were already part of the same endlessly corrupt game (though, to their credit, they do seem to try to do things as right as they can, and they help enhance my pride in an institution that has a lot of history and tradition – and I’m talking academically and research-wise, tradition having nothing at all to do with football – to be proud of). Now we get the best news we ever have, and you think I’m too cynical now?

No way. I’m too far gone. We’re gonna be in the Big Ten, closer to being a real viable entity in major college sports than we’ve ever been. The potential of the Rutgers athletic department as a whole is infinitely higher than it was before this happened. I’m in bed with the devil – and as of this moment, the devil is a spectacular lover.

OK, fine… but Ohio State’s probably just gonna win the league every year as long as Urban Meyer’s there.

Shut up. Let me have my moment.

Photos via Getty, Pernetti photo via