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Conference expansion, realignment means wider reach for Michigan

Erin Kirkland/Daily
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By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 20, 2012

With the web of the Big Ten Conference now expanding to Eastern Seaboard, the University’s alumni base — heralded as one of the largest in the nation — will be more connected than ever.

The Big Ten announced the additions of the University of Maryland and Rutgers University as the 13th and 14th members of the conference this week, setting the two athletic departments on the fast track out of their budget deficits and granting the Big Ten access to several crucial East Coast markets in Baltimore, Washington D.C. and New York City.

Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon said Monday that the eastward shift in the conference makes Michigan athletics more accessible to the wide-reaching alumni base.

“Selfishly, for Michigan, we have a tremendous amount of alums and supporters down there and they're going to be thrilled that the maize and blue are going to be traveling down there regularly,” Brandon said on the Big Ten Network.

“We can expand our footprint, get more people excited about what we're doing, have more people watching on television and have more people buying tickets.”

Brandon admitted the East Coast is “a region we haven't had a lot of connection with.”

Though the Michigan football team may play the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights rather infrequently depending on how division matchups are configured, Maryland fields 20 varsity teams and Rutgers 22, many of which will play the Wolverines on a regular basis in conference play.

Access to the region also gets the Big Ten into millions more homes via the Big Ten Network. The network, the first and most lucrative television network in college athletics, paid more than $24 million to each of its members last year. Expanding to the eastern markets could skyrocket that payout.

The Big Ten’s first-tier rights — the rights for nationally televised games, currently under a 10-year, $1 billion contract with ESPN — are up for bid again in 2017. The ACC inked a 15-year, $3.6 billion extension with ESPN this spring, and the Big Ten is expected to receive an even larger windfall in 2017.

“The media rights and the whole success story that is the Big Ten Network has been incredibly important to all of us,” Brandon said. “We’re all out in the game of investing into our facilities. Michigan has recently announced a $300 million facilities expansion plan. We’re constantly investing in capital, we’re constantly covering costs of travel and coaching salaries and we need to maximize and leverage every revenue and line item we can to make it work.

“There’s no big excess surpluses here, it’s all being invested back into the program.”

Brandon and University President Mary Sue Coleman, who spoke on a national teleconference Monday afternoon, both lauded Maryland’s academic prowess — they did not comment on Rutgers since the school’s addition had not yet been announced.

“When I think about the kind of institutions I think it’s important for us to play against, I view Maryland as an outstanding partner,” Coleman said. “We feel very positive about this move.”

“I think Maryland provides us with a great opportunity to connect with another great public institution, another top-20 public institution,” Brandon added.

The Big Ten’s expansion to 14 teams also brings up the discussion of whether to add more games to the conference slate in football and basketball. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany admitted in a teleconference Monday that he would entertain and revisit the possibilities of adding one conference game to the football schedule and two to the basketball schedule.

“The coaches generally like fewer games, I know the commissioners generally like more games and I think there’s probably a compromise in the middle,” Delany said.

Extra games and extra travel on the table, Brandon and Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein agreed that the debate will be shelved for the time being, especially with whispers of the conference expanding to 16 teams at some point in the future.

“It’s certainly my belief and hope we’ll get to 14 and then we’ll have seven teams (in each division),” Brandon told the Detroit Free Press, “and have to go through the whole process of rescheduling in the out years, the whole discussion of eight conference games versus more conference games (in football), the whole discussion of the structures of the divisions. It’ll be great fun for our fans.”

Beilein said Monday travel in the long basketball season is inevitable, but didn’t give his preference on a number of conference games to play in the future.

“With the way we’re allowed to travel right now, it’s still going to be 18 games,” Beilein said. “I don’t care if we’re going to Maryland or you’re going to Nebraska or Minnesota, there’s still going to be travel.”