November 20, 2012 at 3:55 pm

John Niyo

Money calls the shots as expansion in college athletics strikes again

Maryland will become the 13th member of the Big Ten. (Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press)

All this stability sure does leave you with an uneasy feeling, doesn't it? Of course it does.

But one after another, that's what the suits were selling us again Monday, as the Big Ten Conference expanded its footprint, announced Maryland as its lucky 13th member institution and signaled another round of musical chairs in college athletics — all in the name of "financial stability."

Depending on your perspective, this latest move — to be followed by today's announcement that Rutgers also has found shelter under the Big Ten's big tent — is either an "antidote" to what ails big-time college sports, as league commissioner Jim Delany suggests, or a "symptom" of it.

But does it matter which it is? Maryland, a charter member of the 60-year-old Atlantic Coast Conference, is just the latest to pull up stakes in a game in which the stakes, seemingly, are everything.

"For those asking, 'Why are we joining the Big Ten?'" Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson said, repeating a question many of his school's alums were angrily asking last weekend as the news of this deal leaked out. "It guarantees our athletics department and university financial stability."

Or, as university president Wallace D. Loh explained, "Somebody has to pay the bills."

Fair enough.

But if Maryland's just digging itself out of debt — officials had to slash seven varsity sports this year — what does that make the Big Ten? A loan shark?

And for those asking why the Big Ten, after adding purebred football powers (Penn State and Nebraska) in previous expansions, suddenly decided this fall to add a couple comparative runts to the litter, the answer's really not all that complicated.

Everybody's doing it, for one thing.

"We thought that, given what had happened around the country, that this was a natural response," Delany said, repeatedly citing the "paradigm shift" with rapid-fire conference expansion and realignment in recent years.

And besides, it pays to be proactive, right?

Territorial move

The Big Ten, once mocked for creating its own television network, doled out some $284 million in revenue to its 12 member schools this year. (Nearly $25 million per university, with newcomer Nebraska not yet receiving a full share.) Much of that came from a Big Ten Network that's available in 56 million homes and looking to expand its basic-cable reach in major markets like Baltimore, Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, the conference's first-tier TV rights are up for bid in 2017. And based on that anticipated windfall — the ACC just got $3.6 billion on a 15-year deal with ESPN — those Big Ten payouts could double by 2020.

So, yes, despite all the talk about academics — Maryland and Rutgers certainly fit the Big Ten's profile — this was a business decision, first and foremost.

And whatever risk it entails — from TV negotiating fights to trampled traditions and diluted rivalries — Delany and the rest surely figure a pot of gold is worth more than the Little Brown Jug.

Ironic, though, isn't it? Just as Notre Dame ascended to No. 1 in the national rankings, the Big Ten — left at the altar by the Irish more than once in the last 20 years, and left in the dust in the BCS race this fall — actually managed to steal the headlines this week?

That's a coincidence, obviously. What's not is that this sudden jolt from the Big Ten comes on the heels of Notre Dame's decision to join the ACC in all sports but football and the implosion of a proposed scheduling agreement between the Big Ten and Pac 12. Delany admits that deal, had it held, might've pre-empted this one.

"But it didn't work," he said. "And we continued to see these kind of moves: Everyone of the five (BCS) conferences is outside their natural footprint. So we looked at that and we thought, 'You know, we need to explore how we might become larger.'"

Dominoes falling

As for what it means for the bigger picture in the NCAA landscape, just wait a day or two: You'll see.

The ACC, which posted a $50 million exit fee Maryland will now haggle about, insisted Monday it'll proceed with caution. But the assumption is it'll jump quickly to add a 14th full-time member, with Connecticut the most obvious target.

That, in turn, would mean even more upheaval for the Big East, a conference already in need of a compass. Don't be surprised to see BYU join Boise State, Houston and the other new arrivals there. Or to see those western schools migrate back where they probably belong, to the Mountain West.

And if all this has you dizzy, please remember: Nobody's saying the Big Ten will stop at 14, either. Sure, they spent a couple decades sitting on an odd number, quietly humming "Notre Dame, Our Mother."

Natural growth

But for all the jokes about his conference's plodding nature, Delany's nothing if not a trend-setter.

"We were the first to get outside of our region (adding Penn State)," he acknowledged Monday, "and maybe in retrospect that set something off."

And in defending this latest reach to the Atlantic seaboard, Delany and Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman on Monday actually touted the move as a natural one to a "contiguous" state, just as Nebraska was a few years ago. So, by my count, that naturally leaves 14 other states on the dart board in the Big Ten commissioner's office, right next to a painting of Lewis & Clark.

"We've tried to be restrained," Delany said, who just might want to consider Georgia Tech and the Atlanta media market while he's at it.

Delany acknowledged the ripple effect at work — "If you don't acknowledge the impact, you're not being straight," he said — but also reminded everyone crying foul that no one's brandishing a gun.

"Institutions pursue their own destiny," he said.

And the rest of us? We're just along for the ride. I'm sure they'll let us know when we've arrived.

Making a move

A look at how Maryland's move — and possibly Rutgers' — affect the Big Ten, Atlantic Coast and Big Ten conferences:

Big Ten

The 117-year-old conference adds members for the second time in three years (Nebraska, 2010). Maryland and Rutgers will push Big Ten membership to 14 and extend the conference's reach east.

ACC

Loses a charter member in Maryland. The ACC will have 14 schools next year, with Syracuse and Pittsburgh joining. Notre Dame is expected to join in 2015, but not for football. The ACC will need to replace Maryland. Connecticut and Louisville from the Big East are likely candidates.

Big East

Loses an original football member in Rutgers. The Big East has lost three full members (Pittsburgh, Syracuse and West Virginia) since September 2011. It is slated to become a 12-team football conference next season (Boise State, San Diego State).

john.niyo@detnews.com

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