Could Under Armour Billionaire Kevin Plank Bankroll Maryland’s Move To The Big Ten?
Welcome to the new landscape of college sports, where billionaire boosters and eight-figure payouts cause universities to abandon rivalries decades in the making.
On Monday, the University of Maryland Board of Regents unanimously approved leaving the ACC and joining the Big Ten conference, a decision that may trigger the next wave of college sports realignment. The move is potentially quite profitable for Maryland, which could double the TV revenue it gets by hitching its wagon to the Big Ten Network.
However, despite the foreseeable long-term gains, breaking with the ACC comes with a high upfront cost: $50 million, an exit fee that was recently raised from only $10 million. That kind of fine could cripple the University, especially at a time of cutbacks and budget shortfalls.
Luckily for Maryland, it has a billionaire backer who may be willing to foot the bill: Under Armour founder and Maryland alumnus Kevin Plank. At the release of the Forbes 400 in September, Plank was the 345th richest person in America, with an estimated $1.35 billion net worth. A $50 million donation would barely dent his bank account.
Why would Plank get involved? Because he’s one of the most active supporters of the University. A former walk-on special teams football player at Maryland, Plank came up with the idea for a skin-tight, sweat-wicking shirt while pushing through hard practices. Founding Under Armour in his grandmother’s basement in 1996, Plank sold $17,000 worth of apparel in his first year. The company went public in 2005 and still has its headquarters in Baltimore. Revenues are expected to reach $1.8 billion this year.
According to an ESPN report, an anonymous university regent said Plank is “100 percent” behind the move to the Big Ten and added that the billionaire is “heavily involved behind the scenes with board members.”
The final piece of the puzzle may have fallen into place last week, when Under Armour announced in a SEC filing that Plank would be selling 1.3 million shares of the company “for asset diversification, tax and estate planning and charitable giving purposes.” What would 1.3 million shares of Under Armour net Plank on the open market? Try a cool $56 million after taxes—just the amount Maryland needs to pay if it leaves the ACC for greener pastures.
Is it a smoking gun? No. And Plank did not immediately return requests for comment. But such generosity wouldn’t be unique. A $50 million donation would put Plank into a growing class of billionaires funneling tens of millions of dollars into college athletics. From Phil Knight at Oregon, to T. Boone Pickens at Oklahoma State, to Terrence Pegula at Penn State, some of the richest alumni in America have decided to personally fund large chunks of their alma mater’s sports programs. Maryland could be next.