College football saw another bold act of colonialism Monday, but this time, it wasn't a storied football program that was annexed.
The Big Ten Conference snatched Maryland not for its gridiron tradition but for the potential TV-watching eyeballs surrounding its home area of Washington. Widespread media reports held that the conference soon would reach deeper into the football barrel for Rutgers, which offers even more potential viewers: the millions of eyeballs in the New York/New Jersey area.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany wouldn't confirm the Rutgers move, which is presumed to take place when Maryland leaves the Atlantic Coast Conference to join in 2014-15. (Rutgers scheduled a press conference Tuesday that is expected to confirm the speculation.) But two cash-poor athletic departments in cable-subscriber-rich environments already were counting the millions of dollars spawned by a potential 14-team Big Ten that would stretch from Lincoln, Neb., to Piscataway, N.J.
Maryland president Wallace Loh declared that the move would "ensure the financial vitality of Maryland athletics for decades to come," a direly needed infusion after the department sliced seven sports programs this year because of budget concerns. George Zoffinger, a former member of the Rutgers board of governors, welcomed the reports of the Scarlet Knights leaving the crumbling neighborhood of the Big East for one with giant stadiums on the plains. "You can sell Big Ten football games on TV a lot easier than you can sell Big East football games on TV," Zoffinger said. Rutgers also can use the dough: The Scarlet Knights have gobbled up large university subsidies to balance their sports budget and are still in hock for their recently expanded (and not full) stadium.
Delany said in a conference call that the Big Ten's success has been powered by the Midwest's industrial and farming sectors, but noted that "demographics change and shift." In other words, the boom has started to rust, and it wouldn't hurt to expand the Big Ten borders in the way that could benefit the conference most: digitally.
Adding Maryland and Rutgers is a strategy to get the conference's Big Ten Network cable channel into more homes, especially on the Eastern Seaboard, where the conference has no schools right now. This is how it could work: On Tuesday, Fox is planning to announce its acquisition of a minority stake in the YES Network, which broadcasts most Yankees baseball games. Fox is owned by News Corp ., which owns The Wall Street Journal—and 51% of the Big Ten Network.
The deal provides a path for News Corp. to acquire as much as 80% of the YES Network, according to a source with knowledge of the terms. The source, who is familiar with the long-term News Corp. strategy, said the company ultimately plans to bundle the Big Ten Network with its other cable channels.
That could mean that cable operators who want popular channels like Fox News and eventually YES would also agree to carry the Big Ten Network on digital basic cable rather than as a premium channel, as it is now. Many more viewers equal many more dollars for the conference.
And so the Big Ten, the benevolent conquistador, snapped up two schools with thin football pedigrees at a time when football is more important than ever. That is because conferences' TV properties and markets are in some ways more important than the on-field product. The evolution is reflected in how fans who once talked about national rankings and conference standings are now talking media-market rankings and conference-network footprints. As Delany said of Maryland: "They're in a great population area."
Steven Hershkowitz, a student regent for the University System of Maryland, said students he heard from mostly opposed the move to the Big Ten because it meant trashing 59 years of history with the ACC. "It's going to be a little negative at first," Hershkowitz said. "It's just the nature of this kind of decision. There's a lot of tradition and emotions involved. But the more you look at this, the more it makes a lot of sense."—Matthew Futterman contributed to this article.