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Big Ten Expansion Talk Inches College Sports Closer to Superconferences

The proposed addition of Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten Conference, which remained up in the air late Sunday, would have implications well beyond the league. The move could prompt the Big 12 and other elite conferences to reopen expansion talks. And it increases the likelihood that the most powerful leagues will eventually have 16 institutions, several top athletics officials told The Chronicle.

Late Sunday, Wallace D. Loh, president of the University of Maryland at College Park, was expected to brief the system’s regents on a plan to join the Big Ten. The regents will meet on Monday morning to vote on the matter, ESPN reported. The move—which some say boils down to tradition versus money—would help the Terrapins’ athletic department shore up its shaky finances. But many Maryland supporters oppose leaving the Atlantic Coast Conference, a top-tier league of which they are a founding member.

“People get intoxicated by the dollars thrown around when they forecast what the Big Ten Network is going to do,” Len Elmore, a former star Maryland basketball player and ESPN analyst, told The Chronicle. “They may underestimate the negative impact it could have. It could take a long time for people to cozy up to this change.”

Last year each Big Ten university received $24.6-million from the league, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. That figure would go up if the Big Ten expanded into the Washington and New York markets. The ACC does not have its own cable network, and its media-rights deals are not as lucrative as the Big Ten’s.

Although Maryland could use the money—its athletic department has a multimillion-dollar deficit and had to cut seven sports last year—the deal is not a sure thing, said one knowledgeable source. “We don’t talk about these things because they could fall apart,” this person said. “This is not done, and it may not happen.” (One potential stumbling block: the ACC’s $50-million exit fee.)

The Big Ten proposal, which was first reported by ESPN on Saturday, caught many people off-guard. In September the ACC announced that it would add Notre Dame in all sports but football, bolstering the league’s long-term stability. No other major conferences seemed in a hurry to grow.

But with the Fighting Irish off the table, the Big Ten moved swiftly to expand its footprint into two of the country’s biggest television markets. Maryland, which has one of the country’s pre-eminent basketball programs, and Rutgers, a rising football power, are natural rivals for Penn State, one source said.

The expansion is also important for recruiting. “The idea is to not just have the additional TV markets, but the recruiting presence on the East Coast,” this person said.

After adding Nebraska last year, the Big Ten appeared to be content to stay at 12 members. But one source with knowledge of the league’s discussions said that was only the first step in what is likely to be a move to 16 institutions.

“Right now there are no other schools in play, but this appears to be Step 2 … toward 16 teams down the road,” this person said.

Joseph R. Castiglione, athletic director at the University of Oklahoma, is a member of the Big 12′s expansion committee. He said his conference had been content with its decision to stick with 10 institutions.

“We’ve signed new TV deals, created a new marquee match-up with the [Southeastern Conference], and have already proven that the model of 10 can work,” he said.

But that could change, he said, stressing that he was not speaking for the Big 12.

“One thing that’s been part of the character of our league is to continue to be wise about elements that increase our long-term stability,” he said. “If that requires us to keep looking at expansion issues in the future, we’ll do it.”

Elite leagues may have no choice but to grow. If conferences want to stay competitive, they may have to eventually get to 16 members.

“What none of us understands is whether the postseason in college football will favor those leagues that are larger,” one top athletic director told The Chronicle. “The leagues that are larger are going to want more advantages because they have more members to serve.

“The smaller conferences may be forced to think about something they really don’t want to do, but because of the changed landscape they may have to.”

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