After a few months of silence and teams settling it on the gridiron, the game of conference realignment musical chairs commenced a little over a week ago when word broke that Maryland and Rutgers would be leaving their respective conference to join the Big Ten.
The news came as a bit of a shock, even with the ever-changing nature of college athletics. It wasn’t a shock that teams changed conferences – no, we’ve seen that plenty over the years – it’s just the timing and the fact it came out of nowhere.
Rutgers leaving the Big East was a no-brainer. The Big East is falling apart more and more every year and the conference will be a shell of itself by 2014. Maryland leaving the ACC – where they were founding members – is a bit of a surprise but it’s one we can look at and understand.
For the Terrapins, it’s all about the money. And you can’t really blame them. I mean, sure, you could. But you also need to look at their financial situation to fully understand their reasoning.
Maryland’s athletic department has been fighting budget deficits and was recently forced to cut seven of their sports programs in response to a $4.7 million budget shortfall. These include: men’s tennis, men’s and women’s swimming, women’s water polo, acrobatics and tumbling, men’s cross country and men’s indoor track and field.
Joining the Big Ten gives Maryland financial stability they didn’t receive in the ACC. The Big Ten has the richest television contract in college athletics, bringing in over $24 million a year per team. Conversely, each Atlantic Coast Conference team gets around $17 million. With Maryland and Rutgers joining the conference – and the Big Ten Network likely reaching more homes in the Washington, DC and New York areas – the pay-out should only increase.
But leaving the Atlantic Coast Conference doesn’t come without a hefty price tag of its own. In September, after the addition of Notre Dame, the conference voted to increase the exit fee from $20 million to an absurd $50 million. This was to provide stability and reassurance to teams worried about the future of the conference.
Maryland cannot pay a $50 million exit fee. There’s just no way. And they’re not coming back to the ACC after the conference voted to replace them with Louisville. So, they’ll settle it in court where a negotiation will take place until the ACC and Maryland can agree to a reasonable settlement.
Watching the negotiations very closely will be the Florida State Seminoles. Along with Maryland, Florida State was the only other team in the ACC to vote against the increased exit fee. If the Seminoles see Maryland escape without paying anything close to $50 million, don’t be surprised if FSU is the next to go. They are a football-first program slowly dying in a basketball-laden conference.
Florida State isn’t exactly in an ideal money situation, either. While they’re doing better than Maryland and have top-notch facilities, the Seminoles aren’t bringing in the profit they once did. In May, the school cut its teams’ recruiting and travel budgets by 10 percent in response to a $2.4 million shortfall of their own.
This is what happens when you’re in a conference dedicated to basketball over football. College football is the bread-winner and always will be. Basketball may turn a profit at some schools but football is the overwhelming leader when it comes to making money.
The top 20 most-profitable college programs in 2009-2010 were all football programs. Nine programs made more than $100 million – Texas, Ohio State, Alabama, Florida, Michigan, Penn State, LSU, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Auburn – and unsurprisingly they’re all football-first programs. Of course, the majority of these teams were also big spenders but they still turned a profit. The highest profiting basketball program was the newest addition to the ACC, the Louisville Cardinals, coming in at 21st overall.
With this in mind and the game of musical chairs starting to heat back up, there will be quite a few teams keeping an eye on Maryland and the ACC’s fight in court. And if Florida State leaves, there’s no telling who is next to leave and/or join the conference.
If Florida State leaves, founding-member Clemson has to start looking for its own escape route. While Clemson has been a life-long member and has a long history in the Atlantic Coast Conference, they have to do what’s best for their own future.
If the only other football-first school leaves, Clemson has to make a decision to go with them to a new home (likely the Big 12) or face a less-than-daunting ACC slate which will see their strength-of-schedule questioned at every turn.
Decisions like these aren’t made overnight and it could be a moot point if the conference stays in-tact. But with today’s game of musical chairs, do we really expect things to slow down anytime soon?