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Failing Up: Maryland Leaves The ACC

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Maryland's athletic department is a poster child for mismanagement. So of course the Big Ten decided that they had to get on that train.


If there were one concept that I would graft from international soccer onto American sports, it would be promotion and relegation. It is a simple concept. In a sport, you have multiple levels. At the end of a season, the bottom 2-3 teams get dropped into the next division down and are replaced by the same number of top finishers from the lower league. The system generates excitement at the end of the season outside of the race for the championship at the top. In fact, it's probably fair to say that the pain of getting relegated is greater than the joy of winning the championship. A club can go from playing Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester United in one season to making trips to Peterborough United, Ipswich Town, and Wolverhampton Wanderers the next. The playoff to determine the last promotion spot from the English second division to the Premiership is often referred to as the world's richest match, as the value of winning and getting sent up was estimated last year at $150 million.

Aside from generating excitement and interesting narratives, promotion and relegation reward success and failure. A poorly-managed team doesn't get to just keep cashing checks from its league's TV deals and revenue sharing arrangements, Instead, it has every incentive to alter its course when the product on the field is substandard. Egotistical clowns like Daniel Snyder would get their just desserts. (Until recently, I could have mentioned Donald Sterling and Peter Angelos in this section. How unfortunate that events had to get in the way.)

Additionally, the specter of relegation would prevent farces like the Miami Marlins' recent sell-off. In Major League Baseball, the Marlins can tank before the season because there is no major downside. They get to cut payroll drastically and they will still get large payments from the league to make ends meet. In soccer, this course of conduct would put the Marlins at serious risk of getting relegated, which would mean a fiscal disaster for the club. Thus, in a structure where failure is punished appropriately, there are factors that force teams to actually try to put a good product on the field.

SB Nation spent a week in the summer discussing how promotion and relegation would look in college football. In a clunky, informal way, college football already has something approximating promotion. It does not have relegation, as it is practically impossible to boot an underperforming athletic department out of a conference. However, programs that do a great job of winning games and generating fan support can move up the ladder. This doesn't happen in pro sports. No matter how well the Charlotte Knights do in the International League, they are not going to get snapped up by Major League Baseball. However, in college football, a sustained period of success by a team in a lower division can lead to elevation.

There are a number of examples of this phenomenon. Take Virginia Tech, for instance. Frank Beamer became the coach in 1987. By 1991, the Hokies' results were good enough to get invited into the Big East. Beamer produced a number of outstanding teams in the Big East, highlighted by consecutive 11-1 seasons with Michael Vick at quarterback in 1999 and 2000. Lane Stadium developed a reputation as one of the most feared destinations for visiting teams. When the ACC was seemingly bringing about the demise of the Big East in the early Aughts, it was the combination of Virginia Tech's success on the field and its passionate fan base that led the Hokies to get the brass ring of an invitation to the ACC. The prospect of angry Hokie fans at the polls caused the Virginia General Assembly to get involved, putting pressure on the University of Virginia to take care of its in-state rival. In the end, college football acted as a meritocracy and a deserving program got a just reward.

For the most part, this is how conference expansion worked. The Big Ten and the SEC are the two top destinations for a program. The schools that they have invited since Roy Kramer kicked off the realignment era in 1992 - Arkansas, South Carolina, Penn State, Nebraska, Missouri, and Texas A&M - all had devoted fan bases, a recent, encouraging pattern of on-field football success, or both. You don't find many fans of either conference regretting the addition of any of these particular schools, although you will find the occasional SEC fan fretting that the conference has gotten too big and unwieldy. That's nothing that a nine-game schedule won't fix.

Note that the topic sentence of the last paragraph is framed in the past tense. The Big Ten broke the pattern this week by inviting Maryland to join the conference. One can make a case that Greg Schiano's excellent work at Rutgers and the fact that the Scarlet Knights now draw decent crowds is an example of success being rewarded. One cannot make that case with Maryland. In every meaningful sense, the Maryland athletic department has been mismanaged for an extended period of time. Maryland ran off Ralph Friedgen, who was one of the best coaches the school had had in recent decades. They failed to retain James Franklin, who is about to take Vandy to a bowl game for the second straight season and remarkably has the Commodores' incoming recruiting class ranked in the top 15 nationally. (You know that when Vandy is fighting with Florida State, Michigan, Notre Dame, and USC for a five-star safety, something is going right in Nashville.) They hired Randy Edsall, who has managed to run off a couple dozen players and is 6-17 in two seasons in College Park (although this year deserves a bit of an asterisk because Angry Iowa Running Back Hating G-d got bored with one position and moved onto Maryland quarterbacks). Maryland football was never a major factor in the DC/Baltimore sports market, ranking behind the Redskins, Ravens, Orioles, Nationals, Capitals, Wizards, Maryland Hoops, Georgetown Hoops, and quite possibly Johns Hopkins Lacrosse in terms of attention, but interest has cratered this year. Maryland expanded Byrd Stadium beyond the fan base's interest level, leaving the school with a large deficit that it can only make up by cutting seven varsity sports. When Buzz Bissinger wanted an extreme example of poor management to make his inept case that college football should be banned, he picked Maryland.

In short, Maryland has a poor track record of on-field results, lukewarm fan support at best, and a gaping maw in their athletic budget that is forcing the department to hemorrhage programs. Jim Delany looked at that and said "I'll take it!" Maryland's current state is so bad that even in a post-truth world, none of the relevant parties could spin the move as being about anything other than cable TV viewers. Like Saudi Arabia and other resource-rich states that manage to muddle along despite chronic mismanagement, Maryland got promoted not because of smart management or passionate fans, but rather because it happens to be the flagship school for a state with a good number of television sets.

Leaving aside the fact that the cable TV revenue on which Delany's decision is based might very well be ephemeral in the long term, Maryland's addition to the Big Ten offends the basic premise that in a free market, success is rewarded and failure is punished. American professional sports are not a free market. Witness the continued vitality of the Chicago Cubs as evidence of that fact. College sports has a number of non-free market elements, starting with the fact that the individuals who create the value in the enterprise - the players - are paid in scrip from the company store, but the concept that a well-run program could move up the conference ladder had a real American Dream dynamic to it. Maryland has failed miserably and is being rewarded handsomely. The only meritocratic elements of the story are that John Swofford is being punished for self-dealing and it is likely that either UConn or Louisville - two athletic departments that are not business school case studies in mismanagement - will get bumped up from the Big East to the ACC. In a situation where a conference about to celebrate its sixtieth birthday just saw one of its seven charter members fly the coop out of financial desperation, that is the silver lining.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.