When Ben Wanger sent an email asking University of Michigan alumni in the Philadelphia area if they were interested in traveling to see a college football game in New Jersey, he only expected a few responses.
Within 30 minutes, Wanger received commitments from Michigan graduates willing to buy all 40 tickets he had offered for the Wolverines’ Oct. 4 game against Rutgers in Piscataway, N.J.
As a UM student 10 years ago, Wanger couldn’t have imagined living on the East Coast and having a regular opportunity to attend Big Ten football and basketball games.
When Maryland and Rutgers announced in November of 2012 that each had accepted invitations to join the Big Ten Conference, Wanger admitted to some initial skepticism.
“Maryland and Rutgers, their athletic programs don’t necessarily scream of tradition, and it’s not like adding a school like Texas,” said Wanger, a commercial litigation lawyer in Philadelphia and the president of the U of M Alumni Club of Philadelphia. “But I thought about it, and I was thrilled to realize that for someone living here, it means that Michigan will play every year on the East Coast.”
Maryland and Rutgers officially joined the Big Ten on July 1 and while conference expansion has been criticized nationally and regionally, Michigan and Ohio State fans in the Mid-Atlantic region see a benefit of expansion: better access to a team or to a program that, in years past, required both a financial and a time investment.
“I live in suburban Philadelphia, and it’s an eight-hour drive to Columbus, a day for the game and a day to get back,” said Jim Katzenberger, a resident of Lansdale, Pa., and a 1984 Ohio State graduate.
“Rutgers is 90 minutes away from me, and Maryland is about a two-and-a-half to three-hour drive. Those, for me, are day trips.”
An estimated 500,000 graduates from the 12 Big Ten schools in the Midwest live between the New York and Washington areas.
"A lot of times you see expansion where you are counting on the home team to carry all the interest," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told reporters earlier this month at Rutgers.
"I think [Rutgers and Maryland] will carry a lot of interest — perhaps more than they have in the past — but you are going to see we have such a huge [Big Ten] alumni base."
Yet while some East Coast Big Ten graduates embraced the chance to get closer to their teams, the Big Ten’s expansion to New Jersey and to Maryland initially drew criticism for several reasons, including the widely held perception that the move was driven by money and exposure in the New York and Washington metro areas, with minimal regard to the integrity of the Big Ten.
“Right now, universities and their boards are captive to a process controlled by the commissioners of the various athletic conferences,” University of Maryland regent Tom McMillen, a former U.S. Congressman and former Maryland basketball player, wrote in a 2012 op-ed for the Washington Post.
“Commissioners managing hundreds of millions of dollars are extorting what they need from the universities, and the schools are powerless to stand up to them. We need a national solution to end this practice. What happened at Maryland is just another case where outside athletic forces dictated terms to a university.”
Nothing made the Big Ten pause.
It opened a league office June 1 in midtown Manhattan, relocated the men’s basketball tournament from the Midwest to Washington in 2017, and last summer announced a partnership with the New York Yankees that included an eight-year Big Ten commitment to the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium and in-stadium advertising for all Yankees home games.
Yet several Michigan and Ohio State alums have noticed little Big Ten advertising saturation in the Mid-Atlantic area. When Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011, Katzenberger recalled that the move was generally accepted because of the football tradition the Huskers brought to the conference.
When Penn State joined the conference in the early 1990s, he remembered that more of the rancor regarding the move came from Penn State alumni and fans who disagreed with the university no longer remaining an independent program.
Still, a certain stigma has surrounded the Big Ten’s newest additions, athletically and culturally. Maryland left the ACC for the Big Ten and its men’s basketball team, once a national power and the 2002 national champion, has endured lean years.
Maryland cut seven sports in 2012 as a means to minimize a deficit, yet its women’s basketball team won the 2006 national championship and played in the Final Four in April, and its women’s lacrosse team won the national championship in May.
Rutgers left the American Athletic Conference and has dealt with several public-relations crises in the last 18 months, including the firing of men’s basketball coach Mike Rice last year after video evidence of him abusing players surfaced, the discovery a month later that current men’s basketball coach Eddie Jordan was found to have never graduated from Rutgers, and controversy surrounding athletic director Julie Hermann.
Former volleyball players Hermann coached at Tennessee made claims in May of 2013 that she verbally and emotionally abused them, and Hermann ridiculed the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger in April, telling a Rutgers journalism class at Rutgers that it would be “great” if the newspaper — which originally reported the abuse allegations at Tennessee — would shut down.
“For me, it may have raised a question of, why a college like Rutgers and the problems it was having?” said Sam Chappell, a 1968 Michigan graduate and a resident of Burke, Va. “Or was this a way to start cleaning things up? Hopefully, the Big Ten and the threat of joining the Big Ten may have started cleaning some of that up.”
Still, while national criticism surrounds Big Ten expansion, Michigan and Ohio State alumni acknowledge that the opportunity to have better access to their school’s athletic program comes at a certain premium.
In order to purchase Ohio State-Maryland tickets for Oct. 4 in College Park, Md., Katzenberger had to buy a Maryland football season ticket package — games that Katzenberger said he has no interest in attending.
Wanger also said he knew of several Michigan fans who purchased Rutgers season tickets in order to guarantee a ticket for the Oct. 4 game, and Katzenberger said the Ohio State Alumni Club of Greater Philadelphia has offered tickets to the regional alumni chapters of other Big Ten schools, including Iowa and Michigan State.
StubHub.com is offering tickets for the Michigan-Rutgers game starting at $93, while Ohio State-Maryland tickets start at $99.90 on the secondary outlet.
However, Adam Linkner, a 2004 Michigan graduate who lives in Washington, found one unusual drawback as he prepares to move back to Ann Arbor next month. Michigan’s ticket sales have declined in the last two years and college football analyst Phil Steele recently ranked UM’s 2014 strength of schedule at No. 59 of the 128 FBS teams, a slate that includes home games against Utah, Indiana, Maryland, and Miami (Ohio).
“I’d imagine a ticket to a game at Rutgers or at Maryland to see Michigan might be more difficult to get than for a game at Michigan,” Linkner said.