Maryland’s PR campaign distracts Big Ten transition

By Daily Illini Editorial Board

When Maryland announced it was joining the Big Ten last November after nearly 60 years in the Atlantic Coast Conference, University President Wallace Loh called the move a “watershed moment” for the campus that had been facing financial struggles in its athletic department.

A 2012 Sports Illustrated article estimated that by joining the Big Ten, Maryland would make $100 million more by 2020. Maryland would also bring in nearly $12 million more during the 2014-15 season than it would by remaining in the ACC.

Though Maryland’s financial problems were known to the public (it announced in November 2011 that it was cutting eight of its 27 varsity sports programs for the 2012-13 season, namely swimming and cross-country), it nevertheless evoked an array of reactions among students, alumni and fans.

University officials feared negative reactions from fans regarding the move, so much so that it asked for the blessing of alumnus and Under Armour founder Kevin Plank, who had donated millions of dollars to the athletic program.

Although Loh continued to highlight the benefits of transitioning to the Big Ten, fans expressed their loyalties — to the ACC, to rivalries against Virginia and Duke and to time-honored traditions.

Naturally, Maryland officials launched a public relations campaign to turn the tide in favor of the move, The Baltimore Sun reported earlier this month. Just as negotiations between Maryland and the Big Ten were kept secret until the deal was announced, so was its PR campaign — that is until The Baltimore Sun surfaced it by obtaining documents and emails.

Lee Zeidman, corporate communications consultant who assisted Maryland in its PR strategies, referred to the campaign as “standard operating procedure,” not only at universities, but also in businesses and government. However, the PR campaign is essentially masking how students, fans and alumni legitimately feel about the move and what it means for the state of the Big Ten Conference.

Although the move may bring new opportunities and directions to the university, we have to wonder how much it will benefit its students. If initial reactions and emotions among students were negative, and this PR campaign is meant to “balance” positive and negative sentiments, are students voices being heard?  

Even more important to note is who this campaign is targeting: Its legion of Terrapins fans — not current members of either conference and not national pundits (although it wouldn’t hurt for them to put in a good word for the university’s move, like Maryland had hoped alumnus Scott Van Pelt of ESPN would do).

Sure, it’s more exposure for the football team — and it means a rebirth for some of the smaller, previously cut varsity teams. And sure, raking in millions of dollars in the Big Ten Conference isn’t so bad either. 

But fans are emotional; they’re attached to what most of them have known their entire college careers and lives.

Regardless, the move is going to happen. There’s no turning back now.

What Maryland officials need to focus on now is easing the transition for not only its university-community, but student-athletes themselves — after all, they’re the ones bringing in money for the cash-strapped department. 

But Maryland’s “watershed moment” will come when a PR campaign like this — a distraction, in our opinion — isn’t necessary.