Despite move to greener pastures, Maryland’s lean years likely to continue

It’s hard to know what is more staggering — the growing debt faced by Maryland’s athletic department, or the school’s plan to fix it. To boil it down: Maryland joined the Big Ten in order to make more money; in order to compete in the Big Ten, Maryland needs to spend more money.

The problem, of course, is that Maryland has no money to spend — literally. According to the report issued Tuesday by a school commission, the athletic department has been borrowing, and will continue to borrow, from university funds just to cover its budget. How dire are Maryland’s straits? On June 30, it owed the university $21 million. It is expected to have to borrow an additional $20 million to cover its operating costs for the next 12 months, until the golden ticket to the Big Ten comes through.

The report blames the debt on “a series of historical events and decisions” (that’s code for “Debbie Yow”), but nothing is ever that simple. Maryland’s athletic department has been mismanaged by a variety of people. Yow inherited a huge debt, paid it off, then spent every dime in the couch cushions building new facilities and improving existing ones. The debt still owed on all that construction: $80 million.

Yet the commission report proposes a jaw-dropping laundry list of new spending, at a time when the department has no money and has little chance of raising much from alumni who will not be reaching for their checkbooks after reading about the current state of affairs in College Park. The commission also reports that that the athletic department doesn’t expect a budget surplus until fiscal year 2018.

Maryland wanted to leave the ACC for the rarified air of the Big Ten, the Congressional Country Club of conferences — exclusive and pricy. The ACC responded by saying sure, see ya, but first pay the $52 million exit fee. Maryland said no, not surprisingly, given that it doesn’t have $52 million. The ACC responded by withholding Maryland’s share of ACC revenues — about $15 million during the last academic year — as the litigation rolls on through the courts.

Even when Maryland is finally a full Big Ten member, it’s not going to rain money in College Park. For instance, Maryland doesn’t become a full equity partner in the Big Ten Network until July 1, 2020. Because potential TV viewers were what made Maryland attractive to the Big Ten in the first place, that seems onerous, although Rutgers and Nebraska face the same wait.

All this means that there will be some lean, painful years for the Terps. Specifically, Maryland’s spending per athlete does not approach Big Ten standards, and in order to compete it has to change that — again, with no money. For a time, at least, the Terps may be the punching bag of the Big Ten in a lot of sports. How fun that will be for many athletes who can look forward to long trips in order to get a thrashing.

The commission report acknowledges the travel issue — and the Big Ten has given Maryland a subsidy to cover some of that expense. But the report — compiled in six months and reaching a brisk 23 pages, including a page devoted to listing the schools in the Big Ten — also reads like a crazy letter to Santa. The “Athletics Workgroup” (a subcommittee of the commission) came to the conclusion that the extra travel time required for travel to Big Ten schools will have a negative impact on class time. The group also found that the department has needs, lots of them. It needs more continuity among its training staff, more space for tutoring and academic services, more space for sports medicine facilities, more practice fields, an indoor practice facility, renovations to the Varsity Team House and sufficient space for lockers, meeting rooms and film rooms.

Another recommendation: That athletes who receive full board as part of their scholarships receive 21 healthy meals per week. What were they getting before, Ramen noodles?

Listen, these are all worthy goals, especially providing more space for academic services, but with a budget surplus not expected for five years, how in the world is Maryland going to afford to do even half of the goals set forth in the report?

The good news, or the really optimistic news, according to the report, is that once the athletic department is financially stable, 50 percent of its excess revenues will be used to repay the debt it owes the university. The other 50 percent “should” be set aside to build a reserve fund and make “additional investments” in the athletic department. The reserve fund is a good idea; “additional investments” likely won’t include a building spree, unless a couple of big-time donors step up to the plate.

“We need to continue focusing on raising our level of investment so that our student-athletes . . . can compete effectively in the Big Ten,” concludes one section of the report. That is certainly true. What is also true: Maryland has no money. Maryland needs to pay off its debts. Maryland needs to spend money. Maryland needs to save money.

The Post's Mitch Rubin talks with Terrapins Insider blogger Alex Prewitt about wide receiver Stefon Diggs, coach Randy Edsall and the team's confidence for University of Maryland's football season, which starts on Aug. 31. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

Come to think of it, that makes Maryland’s problems not unlike those of many Americans. Best of luck to all of us.

For more by Tracee Hamilton, go to washingtonpost.com/hamilton.

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