Weighs in on Terps to the Big 10

For now, it is the strangest expansion news since this latest go-round started in December 2009.

In five years it might remind us that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany remains the smartest man in any room.

Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten? Really? The ACC has a $50 million exit fee. ACC commissioner John Swofford – that sly old fox – was thought to have hit the grand slam when he landed Notre Dame in everything but football. Swofford also said his league was set at 14 when it added the Irish.

Apparently, none of that means much of anything. Exit fees are only worth the paper they are printed on. This reported move obviously means the Big Ten has better lawyers who can spot bigger loopholes. It also means there is a long-term strategy, not one that will be immediately evident if the move is announced as soon as Monday.

This has to be about the Big Ten Network, Delany’s baby. BTN is currently throwing off $100 million in profits for 12 teams each year. At best Maryland and Rutgers raise that total just a little bit. At worst, they bring “pro rata” which means equal value.If it happens, Delany may eventually have hit hit the walk-off of all walk-offs perhaps with his alma mater in his hip pocket. And, remember, that alma mater includes one Dean Smith making Delany one of his captains in 1970.

But you don’t expand to College Park, Maryland and Piscataway, New Jersey to bring equal value to your conference and its mega-rich network. If the Big Ten expands and the ACC is de-stabilized even a little, it barely impacts main rightsholder ESPN. All the Worldwide Leader would be doing is shuffling money around.

Unless …

Unless there is that larger strategy at work here. Unless the age of superconferences really is upon us and the Big Ten is going to lead the way. Why stop at 14, when it can go 16 when it gets a foothold on the East Coast? Does this move eventually pry North Carolina loose?

Suddenly, we’re talking some serious BTN dollars with the conference in states with at least 35 percent of the U.S. population. The per-subscriber rate could go from 10 cents – that was the rate outside the Big Ten footprint when BTN launched in 2007 – to maybe 50 cents. Maybe a dollar. Then it goes higher because Maryland basketball fans realize that’s the only way they can see some of the Terrapins games.

And if Jim Delany gets his alma mater, we’re talking realignment Armageddon. Then what is an ACC worth to Notre Dame without North Carolina and Maryland?

(If you don’t think Carolina could split up with Duke, well, that little arrangement is already at work in the ACC with Notre Dame. Carolina could be football-only in the Big Ten and keep the basketball rivalry.)

What Saturday’s news told me is that the Big East is done, kaput. If Rutgers leaves, then UConn will head to the ACC. That’s right in the middle of Big East TV negotiations that will decide how close the league to Conference USA in terms of TV worth. The football? It better hope Boise keeps winning because the Broncos are the lynchpin of the reconstituted league.

And if this is truly the age of the superconference, then the Big East won’t be the only conference eaten alive. If Delany pulls this off, then the repercussions are potentially huge. Notre Dame suddenly has an ACC scheduling agreement that is diminished. Does the Big 12 have to think of going beyond 10?

The ACC rights fees have been renegotiated twice in the last 18 months. They still lag significantly behind the Big Ten. And in four short years the Big Ten is going to cash in big in four years when it renegotiates its television deal. It will conceivably zoom past the SEC and Pac-12.

Because the Big Ten is slotted last among all the conferences, the deal is likely to be the richest in history. But, again, 12 schools splitting that money makes them richer than a 14-team split.

Clearly, this isn’t about football. It seldom is in conference realignment. The Big Ten has enough perception problems in football. Maryland and Rutgers aren’t going to improve its image. It’s about new viewers for the Big Ten Network. I talked to a Big Ten AD less than two years who told me the league presidents were impressed with Georgia Tech and Maryland before settling on Nebraska.

Both are AAU schools. Neither play particularly great football. But each would add a new Big Ten footprint. Sub in New Jersey for Georgia and you see the strategy hasn’t changed.

I talked to three industry sources who couldn’t figure out how the move made sense. One high-ranking official said it was “odd” because the BCS payout to the five major conferences (not including the Big East) is the same. While discussions are ongoing in the new playoff era, the revenue for the major conferences is expected to be distributed evenly as well. The four teams (and thus conferences) in the playoff area expected to receive a proportionally larger share.

Delany’s is a long-term play, one that could outlast the 64-year old as commissioner. Think of a Big Ten that stretches from Nebraska through the Rust Belt, the Northeast and down the East Coast. Think of other conferences being swallowed up as college athletics continues to rearrange the furniture.

Think of the richest conference network in existence getting richer. The Big Ten started the realignment merry-go-round in December 2009 when it sent out a short memo it was considering expansion. With Saturday’s news, it seems that the conference is not going to let realignment end.


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