November 20, 2012

IT’S BEEN ROUGHLY a year since the University of Maryland announced that declining athletic department revenue would force it to eliminate water polo, men’s tennis and other “non-revenue” varsity sports. At the time, university President Wallace D. Loh lamented having to cut the low-profile programs, whose participants epitomized the student-athlete ideal. There was no choice, he said, because “the current business model of intercollegiate athletics nationwide is inequitable and unsustainable.” He promised to “work with the ACC [the Atlantic Coast Conference], the NCAA . . . to reset the balance between academics and big-time athletics in higher education.”

So one way to evaluate Mr. Loh’s sudden decision that Maryland should move to the Big Ten Conference after 59 years in the ACC — a decision ratified Monday by university regents — is to ask whether it represents a new model for intercollegiate athletics at College Park, a fresh start that will, indeed, reset the balance between sports and academics.

Mr. Loh says, yes, “it’s nothing less than a new financial paradigm for intercollegiate athletics.” While the ACC is locked into a TV contract through 2027, the Big Ten is about to renegotiate its deal, and the resulting increase in revenue will yield millions more for Maryland than the $15 million per year it would get by staying put. With the extra cash, the school will no longer depend on unstable ticket sales to fund its athletic department, paving the way for the possible restoration of some sports that were axed last year. An unspecified amount of the funds, Mr. Loh said, will “support our University-wide educational missions and help make college more affordable for our students.” There may be ancillary benefits to Maryland from joining the Big Ten’s Committee on Institutional Cooperation, which pools research assets.

Seems to us that Mr. Loh is pouring old Gatorade in new bottles. Maryland’s athletic department will no longer be dependent on basketball and football ticket sales — it’ll be dependent on basketball and football TV revenue. And the promise of money for the “educational missions” means that this dependence will extend to the academic side of the school. Sports have long helped prop up academics at Maryland: Terrapins basketball and football were part of the campus “experience” that helped it attract talented students and wealthy donors. Now, though, actual dollars would change hands.

In short, Mr. Loh is not reinventing the old business model. He’s doubling down on it. In a world where the university had two options — go for the Big Ten’s gold or stay put and try to cope with its basketball and football teams’ chronic inability to fund other sports while spending what it takes to compete in Division I — it’s certainly a realistic decision.

There was another option, of course: adopting a lower-budget approach to football and basketball, along the lines of the academically excellent schools in the Patriot League. That would have liberated Maryland from the risks and compromises, financial and ethical, that come with big-time college sports. No one in College Park is even talking about that, though. The fact that they aren’t shows how far Mr. Loh and his institution are from truly resetting the balance between sports and studies.