MIDDLETOWN — — The University of Maryland football players and coaches didn't know what kind of reception they'd get as their buses arrived at Middletown High School — surrounded by mountains, 50 miles northwest of College Park — for a scrimmage on a sunny Saturday near the end of spring practices in April.
They hoped that Frederick County was full of Terps fans, but they hadn't scrimmaged here before. They were pleased to find the parking lot nearly full and the scoreboard flashing "Welcome Maryland Football!" in giant red letters.
The Terps can command attention in rural Maryland because there are fewer leisure-time pursuits than in the Baltimore-Washington corridor — a region in which the football program has struggled lately to attract fans. About 1,700 fans attended the team's Middletown appearance, the sort of reception the program increasingly craves.
As it prepares for its 2014 entry into the Big Ten — a potent conference boasting football stadiums with nearly twice the capacity of Maryland's — the state's flagship university needs to build its fan base, its athletic fundraising and its imprint on the region. The school hopes to begin closing the gap this fall between last season's reality — an average attendance of 36,022 in Byrd Stadium, which seats about 54,000 — and its vision of sold-out Big Ten home games in the future.
It has already taken its biggest and most audacious marketing move: jumping to the Big Ten from the Atlantic Coast Conference last November. Maryland sees the new conference as the remedy to years of middling attendance figures for games against ACC opponents such as Wake Forest and Boston College.
"I think in college football — actually, in college in general — football is king. So anybody would jump at the chance to join the Big Ten," said Robert Tuchman, president of the sports and entertainment experiential company Goviva. "You open up a multitude of possibilities by playing legendary teams in huge stadiums. It trumps every other conference. There's a tremendous difference between what you can do as a Big Ten school and what you can do in the ACC."
Maryland is counting on a major attendance boost — it won't estimate how large — by replacing its traditional ACC foes with nationally prominent teams such as Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan. Maryland believes those schools' appearances will not only excite Terps fans but draw thousands of visiting teams' backers to College Park as well.
"At the end of the day, it's that storied football program," said Nathan Pine, Maryland's deputy director of athletics. "It's that history and tradition that some of those schools carry with them. It's the name recognition."
Maryland hopes its Big Ten membership will foster new rivalries and elevate the profile of all of its 20 varsity teams. Football is a priority because it is the big-money sport in college, and there is so much room for attendance to grow at Maryland. Football accounted for nearly one-third of the revenue from all of the school's varsity sports in the most recent data compiled by the U.S. Education Department.
And unlike the ACC, of which Maryland was a founding member, the Big Ten has its own television network, which pays big dividends to members.
For now, Maryland's football program has not grown big enough to fill the stadium's Tyser Tower, a $50.8 million modernization project that opened amid a recession in 2009 and included an expansion featuring luxury suites with bars and flat-screen TVs. As of early June, 48 of the tower's 63 suites were committed. The rest wait for the better days that Maryland officials believe will come when Big Ten teams begin arriving, if not before.
As of June 4, Maryland had sold 15,046 football season tickets, according to the athletic department. That was 1,815 more than at the same time last year, but down from about 20,000 before the 2011 season. Maryland has won six of 24 games over the past two seasons.
Marketing football always has been a challenge for the school.
When the spring scrimmage in Middletown ended, the team boarded its buses and returned to a campus that is within a 40-minute drive of two NFL stadiums. Maryland football competes not only with the Ravens and Redskins for fans' dollars but also with many tourist attractions and professional baseball, basketball and hockey teams.
"I think Maryland is in a unique spot because it does have to deal with the Redskins and Ravens," Tuchman said. "Wow. Those are two powerful brands. But there are people out there who love college football, the tradition it represents. Fans from all over end up in the D.C. area, and there's a chance to grab some of them now that Maryland is in what is clearly acknowledged as a top football conference."
Maryland's advocates are focused on that opportunity for growth.