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Some Thoughts On Maryland And The ACC Post-Split

This article talks about Maryland's hopes with the Big Ten after the Terps leave the ACC.  And it got us to thinking on several levels.

First about the move itself and football. Several things will not change anytime soon. First, Maryland's stadium is runtish compared to the huge arenas in the Big Ten. Maryland can conceivably sell more tickets to see Ohio State than say Wake, but there's a problem with this logic: they're expecting Maryland fans to come out and see even worse beatings. Fandom in general does not work this way ("Hey, we're going to get beat by 50, but this time by a vastly superior opponent!") People just quit going if it's continually bad.

Consider Duke football until very recently, Wake basketball now and UNC basketball under Matt Doherty. A more attractive opponent beating the holy snot out of you does nothing for those people. They just stay home.

And around Maryland's market, they can just opt to watch the Ravens or the Redskins. Why bother with Maryland's losing program?

In order to compete, Maryland has to have great coaching (dissatisfaction with Randy Edsall has been considerable), great recruiting and, so we are told, great facilities.

Good luck with all of that. In their own backyard they fight with Penn State for players and most will take Penn State over Maryland. Who wouldn't? Seriously? If you play football and you get an offer from those two schools, where do you go? Now toss in a couple from, say, Michigan and Purdue? Where do you rank Maryland on that list?

What about Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan?

You'd have to have a very compelling reason to move Maryland up.

The next point we'd like to take up is the Big Ten Network. No question it has been a big success, and other conferences are scrambling to get their own.

What is seldom addressed though is why the Big Ten has a network at all, and the answer is pretty straightforward: faced with declining demographics and a probable corresponding long-term decline in athletic success (this may already be the case in football relative to the SEC), the Big Ten compensated with the BTN.

Was it brilliant? Absolutely. No one knew it would do so well. Does it fix the conference's long-term problems? Not at all.

There is nothing college athletics can do to help Detroit or Gary or the state of Illinois (it's worth considering, if only in passing, what the collapse of the city of Detroit has done and is doing to the athletic programs of Michigan and Michigan State, since both programs had historically drawn heavily on the Motor City for talent).

There is nothing the conference can do to help Chicago schools or to resolve the extraordinarily bitter political disputes which recently pitted Wisconsinites against each other, much less anything it can do to provide off-the-field prosperity for Cheeseheads.

What it can do is to reach out to other areas with more impressive demographics. You don't have many areas more prosperous than the DMV region, even if the rest of Maryland is somewhat less appealing, and you certainly don't get many more densely populated areas than New Jersey and the fat market next door in New York.

Which is why the conference was so focused on Maryland and Rutgers, despite the facts that Maryland can't manage their books and Rutgers is an ongoing disaster in nearly every athletic sense.

It was perhaps also an attempt to split the ACC. If successful, it would leave open schools like Virginia, Virginia Tech, UNC and Syracuse and the Big Ten's problems, masked by the BTN, would be gone.

It also goes a long way towards explaining the Big Ten's  intense reaction to Notre Dame's surprise move to the ACC. The Irish beat everyone else to their own TV network, having claimed NBC years ago due largely to the strength of their primary network, the Catholic Church.

Notre Dame, alone, could have solved many of the Big Ten's issues as the Irish would have brought fans from all over the country but specifically from the Northeast.

So what happens going forward? Maryland will get their cut of Big Ten money, to be sure, although the fans won't: five-hour trips to Durham and Chapel Hill are over, replaced by flights to the Midwest. They'll still go, just less of them.

The arms race now starts over: Maryland has to figure out, simultaneously, how to compete in the Big Ten while simultaneously upgrading football facilities that still aren't paid for from the last time around. The school is excited over visits by Ohio State and Michigan, but there are only so many seats to sell. It's not exactly the Big House. Marketing has to sell Minnesota and Northwestern in addition to the power schools which drive the conference.

Maryland fans will have to focus their considerable rage elsewhere since Duke and the other Big Four schools can no longer be blamed for Terrapin inadequacies and failures.

For the ACC, losing Maryland definitely hurts. The conference still has Virginia and Virginia Tech near the DMV region, but that's not quite the same. It may cause serious long-term problems in recruiting the area, although the power of the new ACC in basketball looks to be considerable. Mark Turgeon has really gone after his home base which is smart, but he can really only recruit three players a year, four tops, the odd years excepted. Even if he turned over his roster every year and refilled it entirely with local talent, there would be a lot of players left to recruit. But it does complicate things a bit.

The travel logic remains the same: it's not hard for the parents of guys like Nolan Smith, Kendall Marshall or Beejay Anya to get to the Triangle to see their kids play. Getting to Minnesota is a bit different.

We told you guys for years that the Big East could not continue as two conferences and we were eventually proved correct as the basketball schools finally left.

We'll repeat our opinion of the Big Ten: Jim Delaney has done a tremendous job of masking weakness, but all of his actions have truly been reactions and essentially defensive in nature. Huge challenges remain, among them:

The Ed O' Bannon suit. This is a potential game-changer for everyone, not just the Big Ten.

The rapidly evolving media market. We've said before we are skeptical of broadcast networks. While it's true that major sporting events can still draw mass audiences, it's also true that much has changed and is changing quickly. Today's network may not be worth as much in 15 years.

There is a general sense that the cable/satellite  model cannot go on indefinitely.   Most people ignore 90% of their package. HBO is already tentatively unbundling, offering their programming over the Internet.

True, it's just to the network's current subscribers, but it's a  short and easy step to opening it up.

We learned recently that Time-Warner plans to offer 100 mbs service by the end of the year. They won't be alone.

This means a dramatic change in what the Internet does and a huge challenge for every existing form of entertainment.

Consider just one, gaming. Today you can certainly play online. Tomorrow, with technologies like Kinect, which is being avidly expanded by hackers, who knows? What happens to something like Second Life, which uses clumsy Avatars? How do you get kids to watch a Saturday football game which is just…flat?

Just as there was no forecasting what radio and TV would do in the 20th century, there's no way to really know what's coming next with billions connected to the Internet and massively interacting. Keith Jackson and Saturday scoreboards it ain't.

Finally, while football runs the show today, it too is under pressure. People (not least of all parents) are realizing that  the game has significant long-term risks. Just as people eventually drifted away from baseball, they may one day drift away from football as well. In fact, we think it's already happening. You can see early signs in (we expect) decreased youth participation, lawsuits, and defensive moves by the NCAA and NFL to ward off those suits. The problem for the game is simple: it relies on violence for entertainment value. If violence is disallowed, the game simply cannot be as successful. Who wants to watch touch football?

Obviously all of these challenges affect the ACC as much as any other conference and for all the positives Louisville, Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pitt may bring, they can't bring instant solutions.

But the question is not merely what comes but also what remains? What transcends?

In short, human nature.

Emotion will still be the primary driver of human behavior,and that is certainly true in sports. We use sports to find tribes (think of the suffix Nation - Blue Devil Nation, Tar Heel Nation, etc) and enemies, and to exult in smiting them or to console one another when we ourselves are struck down.

That will not change. If you want to market to people in a dynamically changing world where attention is competed for on a second-to-second basis, your best bet for the long term, perhaps your only bet, is making an emotional connection.

College sports can do that in a way that is more difficult for pro sports. If nothing else, colleges don't move very often, with Wake Forest the obvious exception.

Maryland will still be able to offer that, but not in connection with historic rivals. The ACC will have to foster rivalries between the newcomers and the current members.

This is why we believe it is absolutely essential for the ACC to allow historic rivals to play as often as possible. Having Duke or UNC play in London or Ireland is great; we're all for it. But it doesn't replace having them play in Raleigh or Clemson and doesn't do nearly as much good.

In a time of sweeping changes, the ACC has some truly extraordinary advantages. Yet the best may also be the simplest and the one which Maryland is casting aside: the emotional nature of college sports.

In order to thrive in sports, intensity is mandatory. And for intensity to be great across the board in the ACC, the conference need only to use the tools it has always turned to: jealousy, admiration, pride, hatred, passion, anger, longing, desire.

Everett Case understood this when he hung his first applause meter and with every jab at Frank McGuire.  McGuire understood it when he reveled in boos around the conference.  When Bones McKinney strapped on his seatbelt, it was humorous, but an emotional statement nonetheless.

We're not saying the ACC should come out for hatred; rather we're saying that the conference should at every turn focus on emotional connections. The means of delivering and sharing the experience can and will change, but human nature will not.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, regardless of the means, or of whatever technologies come along, is where the ACC should place its bet.