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Terps’ decision to join Big Ten driven by dollars

There’s something to be said for tradition, but in the end, leaders at the University of Maryland decided that there is more to be said about money.

Maryland Big 10

Big Ten Commissioner James Delany, left, speaks at a news conference to announce the University of Maryland's decision to move to the Big Ten in College Park on Monday. Seated alongside Delany is Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The Terrapins will join the Big Ten Conference, officials announced Monday, leaving the Atlantic Coast Conference, which the school helped to start in 1953.

The news comes in the wake of an athletics department budget fallout that eliminated seven varsity teams.

The decision came down to priorities, several people said — and that’s the bottom line.

In a closed door meeting in Baltimore, the Board of Regents — the 17-member group that governs the University System of Maryland — unanimously approved the university’s application to the conference.

“We have done so much, with so little, for so long,” Athletic Director Kevin Anderson said. “So imagine what our teams are going to be able to accomplish with the financial stability we’re going to be able to present them.”

The Big Ten reportedly paid each of its members $24.6 million from television and media rights this year, compared to an expected $17 million that each ACC school will get.

There will be some financial matters to resolve in the short term, though. After the ACC added Notre Dame as a member in all sports but football and hockey in September, the league voted to raise its exit fee to $50 million. UM President Wallace D. Loh cast one of the two votes against the increased exit fee, although he insisted Monday his choice was unrelated to Maryland’s subsequent departure from the conference.

Officials also hope the higher-caliber football teams of the Big Ten will draw more fans to Byrd Stadium — especially in Tyser Tower, which was completed in time for the 2009 football season. The more than $50 million addition included 63 luxury suites that seat 24 fans and cost more than $35,000 per year. But a sour economy and a sub-par performance on the field have led to a good number of suites remaining unsold.

But Bob Leffler, who runs the Baltimore-based Leffler Agency, which works with college athletic programs to sell tickets, said with better teams coming to town, those types of seats will be more attractive.

“Eventually if [the football team does] well, and if they market the seats the right way, they’ll sell them,” he said.

The decision had been in the works for about two weeks, officials said, and plans emerged more clearly over the weekend. The official announcement came Monday afternoon at a campus news conference with Loh, Anderson and Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany.

Leffler said the decision was “all about football and basketball.”

“That’s what the world is,” he said.

Maryland’s “non-revenue” sports stand to benefit from whatever most benefits the top two money-makers, experts said.

While Terrapin football and basketball games will get better play on the major broadcast and cable networks, less-followed teams will get increased exposure via the Big Ten TV network, Leffler said.

And more money in the athletic department’s pot means more money for non-revenue sports and their facilities, he added.

That begs the question, will officials bring back any of the seven teams they were forced to cut last year? And if so, which ones, and when?

Officials did not provide concrete answers Monday, but said the possibility was on the table.

Asked whether the department was concerned about decreased alumni donations, Anderson said he and other officials had given plenty of thought to that issue, but that he expects to win back alumni support once the program builds momentum in the new conference.

“Will it be challenging?” he said. “Probably so. But we’re up to the challenge.”

In the news conference, Delany addressed criticisms of Maryland’s move head on. He said he understood there may be hard feelings — even anger — but that he hoped Terrapins fans would soon learn to embrace the Big Ten.

“We’re not asking you to become us,” Delany said. “We’re just asking to partner with you in academics, research and athletics.”

In a letter from the Student Government Association to the Board of Regents, the student executive board wrote: “Although we mourn the traditions that would inevitably be lost, joining the Big Ten would fundamentally transform our university for the better.” The letter also said students were concerned about how additional revenue would be reinvested into the department, citing the possibility of bringing back the teams that were cut.

“Our best wishes are extended to all of the people associated with the University of Maryland,” ACC Commissioner John Swofford said in a statement. “Since our inception, they have been an outstanding member of our conference and we are sorry to see them exit. For the past 60 years the Atlantic Coast Conference has exhibited leadership in academics and athletics. This is our foundation and we look forward to building on it as we move forward.”

There has been some talk about what the move indicates for one of the athletics department’s most important donors: Baltimore-based Under Armour Inc., which has had an exclusive contract since 2009 to provide uniforms to Maryland’s athletic teams.

Some wondered if CEO Kevin Plank, a university alumnus, pressed for the switch because it would hopefully generate more revenue for an athletics program that’s near and dear to both his heart and his company.

Anderson called Maryland’s relationship with Under Armour “tremendous,” and said Plank is a “strong supporter” of the decision. He declined to specify whether Plank influenced the move, though, and Under Armour representatives did not return calls for comment Monday.

The company will likely see some increased sales of Terrapins merchandise in the area, Leffler said. But while the business relationship is very significant, Maryland isn’t the only fish on Under Armour’s line, he said.

“It’s a great profile for Under Armour,” Leffler said. “But don’t kid yourself — Under Armour has a lot of prominent programs. They have profile all over the place.”

The addition of Maryland extends the Big Ten farther east and south than it ever has been, and gives the conference a presence in the major media market of Washington, D.C. Rutgers University is expected to also join the Big Ten by Tuesday, splitting from the Big East and bringing the number of Big Ten schools to 14. The New Brunswick, N.J., school gives the conference a member in the country’s largest media market, which means many more eyes on Maryland.

Delany said he expected Maryland’s move would create enormous mutual benefit.

The benefit to the Big Ten is clear, Leffler said.

“The Big Ten gets an amazing market,” he said. “Baltimore/Washington is a big television market and there’s a lot of activity here. Two NFL teams. Two major league baseball teams. The Navy Academy. There’s a lot of action.”

At Monday’s news conference, Loh underlined the academic benefit of the switch, as well.

The Committee on Institutional Cooperation — a consortium of the Big Ten schools plus the University of Chicago — is an added bonus of the switch, he said. The organization aims to pool resources and increase collaboration between member institutions, and Executive Director Barbara McFadden Allen said a research-minded school like Maryland would fit right in.

“For me and for the board and the faculty, and many students as well, the academic component is very, very important,” Loh said. “I don’t know if we would have done this kind of a deal if it weren’t for this consortium.”