Yesterday, ESPN became the first reputable outlet to report that Maryland is in discussions to leave the ACC and join the Big Ten. It said that Rutgers would probably then follow to get the league a symmetric 14 and to add even more low-tier cable and satellite subscribers for the Big Ten Network. Yes, welcome back to conference realignment season.
There was a lot of skepticism the past couple days as rumors of Maryland talking to the Big Ten surfaced. Most of it had to do with the fact that UMD's finances are in notoriously poor shape, and the ACC's exit fee is $50 million. There is no way that the school can pay it to leave.
One option reported by CBSSports.com's Jeremy Fowler is having the Big Ten pay the fee and have some amount deducted from Maryland's media payout each year. That could work.
The other is having Maryland fight to invalidate the fee altogether, or at least have it become significantly less. UMD president Wallace D. Loh, both a lawyer and former Washington Law School dean, thinks that the fee won't hold up in court:
In Loh's view, the $50 million charge for leaving the ACC, which equates to three times the annual operating budget, represents not an exit fee but an "exit penalty," which Loh believes is "illegal and philosophically not a good idea."
One way or another, I have a feeling that Loh is going to challenge the fee if he and the Big Ten come to terms. Even if Jim Delany is perfectly willing to pay it now and put the Terps on an installment plan, the installment plan will be cheaper if the fee comes down. I can't imagine that the ACC would want to actually go into the courtroom on the matter, but it would have to agree to a much lower fee to prevent that from happening.
If the ACC did take a much lower exit fee from Maryland, then that would basically be the new conference exit fee. If it is significantly lower, then the barrier to other teams leaving would be far lower. Keep in mind that FSU was one of two schools (along with Maryland) that voted against raising the fee to $50 million, and I think you remember its flirtation with the Big 12 earlier this year.
If UMD can break the fee, then there's nothing to stop the floodgates from opening if other conferences want to expand. If the Big 12 eventually decides to go to 14 too, presumably after DeLoss Dodds retires, then three of the additional four schools would probably be from the ACC (with Louisville being the fourth). Plus, there have long been rumors about the SEC eyeing Virginia Tech and NC State. The $50 million fee is the strongest component of the glue that's holding the league together.
Even discussing a move to 14 is an interesting repudiation of some statements that then-Big 12 interim commissioner Chuck Neinas made this past year. He said he had some contacts in the ACC and SEC tell him that having 14 conference members was "unwieldy", and he himself described having a 14-team conference as "cumbersome". While that may be true, money talks. It also might have been him covering for Texas, which is well known to oppose Big 12 expansion. Whatever the case, here is yet another conference looking to get to 14.