This story appears in the June 23, 2014, issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe and purchase the digital edition of the magazine, go here.
Brian Cook lives in Ann Arbor and is the founder of the popular Michigan fan site MGoBlog.com, yet he's in no rush to drive the two miles from his house to the Big House this season. The Wolverines' home conference schedule consists of four teams -- Minnesota, Penn State, Indiana and newcomer Maryland -- that failed to crack the final top 50 of the Sagarin ratings last season. Michigan has been sending emails pleading with fans to renew their season tickets. "It seems like they keep pushing and pushing to see what our breaking point is," Cook says of the conferences's power brokers. "They keep doing things they know people will hate."
It has been 19 months since the nation's oldest conference stunned both its fans and the industry by extending invites to football afterthoughts Maryland and Rutgers. As their July 1 arrival draws near, Big Ten commissioner and South Orange, N.J., native Jim Delany has been building bridges to the East. In May he held press conferences on consecutive days in New York City and Washington, first to trumpet a new basketball series with the Big East starting in 2015, then to announce that the conference tournament -- always held in Indianapolis or Chicago -- will relocate to D.C. in 2017. The Chicago-based conference has opened a second office in Manhattan. "We're a two-region conference now," he says. "We're not going to visit the East. We're going to live in the East."
That doesn't sit well with many folks back in the Midwest. "What an absolute slap in the face to all the people who support Big Ten athletics," one Michigan fan tweeted about the basketball tournament move.
Nearly a quarter century has passed since Delany, 66, roiled traditionalists and set off a generation of conference shuffling with the then revolutionary addition of Penn State. He engendered skepticism again in 2007 when he launched the Big Ten Network, the first conference television channel. But the incorporation of Maryland and Rutgers is both the boldest and most divisive initiative of his 25-year tenure. On the one hand, this expansion could yield lucrative cable subscriber fees and open new recruiting territory. On the other, it could alienate the existing fan base and further dilute an already struggling football league. "The Big Ten brand has not atrophied, but you can argue that other brands, like the SEC, have accelerated past it," said David Carter, executive director of USC's Sports Business Institute. "If you don't do something, you're in trouble." Delany is betting that something is a pair of institutions light on football cachet and heavy on potential.
Maryland and Rutgers went a combined 13-13 last season. The Terrapins last finished in the AP top 10 in 1976; the Scarlet Knights never have. "Ohio State fans in particular are sick of having to defend the league after winning 24 straight [2012 and '13] and still not getting the respect it deserves," said Luke Zimmermann, founder of the Buckeyes blog Land Grant Holy Land. "This is not in their mind anything more than adding another Indiana or Purdue."
To which Delany says, "That's not a compelling comment to me. If the standard for expansion is you have to bring in Nebraska or Penn State, no one's ever going to expand. There's only a couple of those out there." In his vision Rutgers and Maryland will soon develop into big-time football programs in large part because big-time football is now coming to them. Season-ticket sales are up 25% at each school mainly because Rutgers is now hosting Penn State and Michigan instead of Cincinnati and South Florida, while Maryland's last ACC home game was against Boston College but its first Big Ten visitor will be Ohio State. Nearly a half-million Big Ten alums live from New York to Virginia, and the two newcomers will add a half-million more in that area.
Most of all, Delany believes the conference had no choice. As the Big Ten's population moves South and West, the conference's base is rapidly shrinking: Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Iowa all rank among the 12 states with the smallest projected growth from 2000 to '30. Meanwhile, between June '10, when Nebraska joined the Big Ten and Colorado and Utah joined the Pac-12, and the Maryland and Rutgers announcements in November '12, the SEC added Texas A&M and Missouri, and most important, the ACC delivered a death knell to the Big East, poaching Syracuse, Pittsburgh and, as a partial member, Delany's long-coveted target, Notre Dame. The Big Ten, which had long claimed the most populous footprint of any conference, suddenly ranked a distant third. And with Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame, the ACC had moved directly into the neighborhood. A still unfolding lawsuit filed last year by Maryland against the ACC over the league's $52 million exit fee claims that representatives from two ACC schools, acting on the conference's behalf, contacted two Big Ten schools about joining. "That's when it changed," says Delany. "Once people start getting on our doorstep and calling our institutions, then I think it's important to be able to be offensive and defensive. We came to the conclusion there was more risk in sitting still than there was in exploring other opportunities."
On a late March morning Julie Hermann takes a seat in a meeting room at The Hale Center, Rutgers's football facility. Hermann arrived from Louisville after basketball coach Mike Rice was fired and AD Tim Pernetti left after video of Rice berating, throwing balls at and kicking his players surfaced. Since taking over she's had to deal with the revelation that the new basketball coach, Eddie Jordan, never actually graduated from the university, as well as several self-inflicted controversies arising from her misstatements to the press and brusque manner, damning enough that the Asbury Park Press ran an editorial headlined, RUTGERS ATHLETIC DIRECTOR IS PR NIGHTMARE.
The bigger problem for Hermann is the state of her department's finances. The university had a deficit of $190 million in athletics from 2004-05 through 2011-12, and a staggering $47 million in 2012-13, which is in part due to a variety of one-time expenses. Rutgers will accumulate another $183 million in deficit by 2022, but buoyed by an expected influx of Big Ten cash, the school believes it will be budget-neutral after that. Both Big Ten and school officials tout Rutgers's academic credentials as one of its biggest draws -- it's the only public school in the top 10% of the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate for FBS football programs for the past seven years. As proud as he is of the achievement, school president Robert Barchi concedes the subsidies are "siphoning dollars off from the academic mission." Hermann will need even more money, presumably from private donors, to fulfill her vision of drastically upgrading the Scarlet Knights' long-neglected facilities. "Build, build, build," says Hermann, 50, whose Louisville mentor, AD Tom Jurich, engineered nearly $150 million in facility upgrades during her 15 years there. "If we don't have a crane up, I'm not a happy person."
Rutgers has never played in a New Year's bowl, but former coach Greg Schiano turned the once woeful program into a regular postseason participant, with eight bowl trips in the past nine seasons, including the last two under Schiano's successor, Kyle Flood. At its zenith, Nov. 9, 2006, 8-0 Rutgers, led by running back Ray Rice, knocked off third-ranked 8-0 Louisville 28-25 on a night the Empire State Building was lit in scarlet. Flood is most likely coaching for his job after a disappointing 6-7 finish in 2013 and a disastrous recruiting cycle in which 12 prospects decommitted. But football is a powerhouse compared with men's basketball; Rutgers hasn't reached the NCAA tournament since 1991. In its last game pre-Big Ten, the Knights were humiliated by Louisville 92-31 in the AAC tournament quarterfinals. "As much as that was not fun, I was probably bothered by it the least," says Hermann, "because I know exactly what it takes to be what Louisville is. With the resources and the power of New Jersey, I believe if everyone's all in behind their flagship university, over the next decade this is absolutely the next superstory of college sports." Look closely, and it's possible to see what Hermann's talking about. Rutgers has had success in women's basketball, including two Final Four appearances (2000 and '07) and a win in last year's WNIT, while its wrestling program is on the rise, with two top 25 and one top 10 finish since 2009.
Down I-95, Maryland's athletic department has had more success. The women's basketball team appeared in this year's Final Four. Women's lacrosse won the national championship, and the men's team is an annual contender. Men's basketball reached the Final Four in 2001 and won a national title in '02. Ralph Friedgen's football squad earned an ACC title that came with an Orange Bowl berth and had at least 10 wins a year from 2001 through '03. (Friedgen is now the offensive coordinator at Rutgers.) But Maryland has overextended itself financially. In 2002, AD Debbie Yow, now at N.C. State, embarked on an ambitious facilities upgrade that ran to more than $175 million even as the school's revenue programs sank into mediocrity. Football went 35-38 from '04 through '09. Basketball missed the Big Dance three times in four seasons from '05 through '08. Season tickets and donations dropped. In 2010, Kevin Anderson succeeded Yow, and the department ran a $7.8 million deficit. The next year it cut eight sports.
At the time of the Big Ten invite, president Wallace Loh conceded the move was a de facto financial bailout for the school. That did not appease Terrapins fans furious about bolting the conference Maryland helped found 60 years earlier. "The ACC we [left] is not the ACC it used to be," says Anderson, noting that in the 15-team league Duke basketball no longer visits College Park annually. And in football the Terps will renew a rivalry with Penn State, which they played 31 times from 1960 through '93 (going 1-29-1).
Maryland went 7-6 last season, losing to Marshall in the Military Bowl, but it boasts one of the nation's most promising receivers, Stefon Diggs. Rutgers is just two years removed from producing a top 10 defense that included six subsequent NFL draft picks, but the school has struggled to develop a consistent quarterback. "If you're comparing their talent levels, they're very typical right now of a team in the Big Ten that's right on the cusp of being bowl-eligible or going to one of the lower-tier bowls," said Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, who watched practice at all 14 schools this spring. "They're not going to the BCS like Michigan State and Ohio State, but you take that next tier -- the Minnesotas -- that's who they are."
On Nov. 18, 2006, nearly 22 million viewers watched No. 1 Ohio State beat No. 2 Michigan 42-39, the highest-rated regular-season college football game in 13 years. Seven weeks later Florida, coached by future Buckeyes savior Urban Meyer, humiliated Big Ten champion Ohio State 41-14 in the BCS national championship game, beginning a streak of seven straight SEC national titles and a dark era for Big Ten football. The conference has produced one winning bowl record since '02 (4-3 in '09) and no top 10 draft picks since '08, while the SEC has exported 24 in the same span.
"Ohio State fans are tired of having to defend the league after winning 24 straight and still not getting respect," says blogger Luke Zimmerman.
Yet the conference's on-field mediocrity has not damaged its balance sheet. The Big Ten Network is in more than 52 million homes, and as of 2013, it had produced a total of $42.5 million in revenue per school. Network president Mark Silverman believes it can gain carriage in eight million more Northeast homes by the start of football season. He's already reached deals with Time Warner Cable and Cablevision in New Jersey and New York, including New York City, where Rutgers has produced four of ESPN's five highest-rated regular-season games since 2006. Yet "the idea that expansion was done for Big Ten Network reasons has been vastly overstated," said Silverman. "It's not the key driving factor."
That's because the league figures to cash in even more when it negotiates its next Tier 1 TV deal for 2017-18 and beyond. The market for live sports rights has skyrocketed since the Big Ten began its current 10-year, $1 billion ESPN deal in '07. A document obtained by the Lafayette (Ind.) Journal and Courier shows the conference projecting a staggering $44.5 million annual revenue distribution to each of the 12 current members in 2017-18, up from an already national-best $25.7 million last year, with TV accounting for a whopping $33 million of that. (Multiple sports television consultants confirmed to SI that the $33 million is realistic.) Rutgers and Maryland won't receive full shares until 2020-21, but they add at least 15% in value simply because the package will now include 15% more league games before demographics and market forces even enter the picture. Whether the quality of the games improves is another matter.
The Big Ten's slippage in football is largely due to the dearth of high-level talent in its population-depleted backyard. In the 2015 recruiting class, just 32 of Rivals' 325 four or five-star prospects hail from one of the nine current Big Ten states. Maryland; Washington, D.C.; Virginia and New Jersey, however, add another 32 on their own. "Because of their recruiting areas and where they're located, it puts Rutgers and Maryland ahead of Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue and Northwestern," said DiNardo. That is if they can keep those players home. Ohio State, Michigan and others can now sell annual trips back home to blue-chippers in those states. "It was bad enough for Maryland to be raided from the South," says Rivals.com national recruiting director Mike Farrell. "Now they'll be raided from the Midwest."
It may be a decade or more before we know whether Delany's move was right. Success is dependent on Rutgers's overcoming its propensity to self-destruct and Maryland's returning to glory in the two revenue sports. Many expected Texas A&M and Missouri to struggle upon moving from the Big 12 to the SEC; each has already produced a top five football team. "If [Rutgers or Maryland] approximates what Missouri and A&M did, you'd see Big Ten fans really embracing them because just by proxy it makes their program look better," says Zimmermann. "But if those schools don't carry their weight or add value, who cares? The fans aren't getting that $45 million." Delany concedes that Ohio State-Maryland lacks the sizzle of Ohio State-Nebraska, but he's betting the former will help attract a new legion of fans. In the meantime the current fans are like longtime residents in a gentrified neighborhood. Like it or not, change happens.