The college sports landscape is witnessing another big upheaval today as Maryland will leave the ACC to join the Big Ten, and is expected to quickly be joined there by Rutgers. The move will expand the already bloated Big Ten to 14 teams, but more importantly, it gives the Midwestern-based conference a foothold in the lucrative TV markets of Washington, DC, and New York City. All six of the major football conferences have now added or lost (often both) at least one school in the last three years.
And make no mistake, this is solely about television money and, specifically, football money. Only 22 college athletic departments turn a profit each year, and the only ones that do are those with big, successful football teams. And success means two things: TV contracts and bowl games. The money made from both of those sources is shared among all conference members and a conference that stretches from Nebraska and Minnesota to New Jersey and Maryland can reach a lot of homes.
The Big Ten is also looking to expand the reach of its Big Ten Network, which is currently a hard-to-find premium channel on most cable systems (if it's available at all). Getting more prominent placement on New York and DC cable systems will be a big revenue-driver for the whole conference. Payouts from the NCAA men's basketball tournament are also determined by the number of games each conference wins, so having two more programs that could potentially enter the Big Dance is also a plus.
That's why Maryland and Rutgers are eager to dump their weaker football conferences to join one in which they have no shot to compete anytime soon. Maryland's football team has long been an afterthought, and even its once-powerful basketball program has struggled in recent years in the top-heavy ACC. The Rutgers program has been even more maligned, failing to compete in either sport in the Big East. Yet, sharing 1/14th of of the Big Ten pie is a lucrative enough proposition that the Maryland is willing to travel all the way to Lincoln, Nebraska, for road games and pay a $50 million exit fee to get out of the ACC. (Not suspiciously, Maryland alumnus and UnderArmour founder Kevin Plank just sold a sizeable amount of stock in his company, which is the also the Terrapins' top sponsor. How much stock? About $56 million worth.)
That doesn't mean the move is a slam dunk for the Big Ten, though. Even if the extra TV money does materialize—which is not guaranteed, since Rutgers is not as popular in New York City as the conference might think—that means sharing the pot with more teams and adding two schools that don't have the strongest athletic programs. Maryland actually had to cut seven sports just this year due to lack of funds. Not exactly the mark of a robust program. One of Maryland's best sports for both men and women, lacrosse, isn't even an official Big Ten sport.
To get a sense of just how the economics of college sports works, check out this 60 Minutes report on the subject, which was timely enough to air last night. It's a financial gamble, but one that Maryland and Rutgers must make in order to survive.