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.
"You're dealing with an institution that sits in a very densely populated region of the country," said Terry Hasseltine, director of the Maryland Office of Sports Marketing. "That is one of the challenges. But if we overcome those challenges, it's also an advantage. There are more people to tell your story to."
With more than 9.3 million residents, the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area is the nation's fourth largest, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Maryland estimates that 200,000 alumni live within a two-hour drive of from campus.
"We have the best location and the worst location in the country," Sasho Cirovski, the men's soccer coach, told Maryland fans during a recent Inner Harbor cruise on the Spirit of Baltimore.
Among those on board was men's basketball coach Mark Turgeon, who is reaching out to former Terps players — from the 1970s and earlier — to help promote the program. Until this past season, many players from former coach Lefty Driesell's era said they felt alienated from Maryland.
Driesell was forced out in 1986 after the cocaine-induced death of star player Len Bias. Some of Driesell's former players kept their distance from the school because they believe he never received his due. Driesell, who coached Maryland for 17 seasons, was honored last season with a bronze bas-relief and a halftime ceremony at Comcast Center.
"There's some things we haven't done that I'd like to do, [such as] another alumni weekend," Turgeon said. "It's just making us one family."
The cruise was part of an outreach campaign that also extended to Washington, Annapolis and Ocean City. The idea was to generate excitement for Maryland athletics, but also to impress upon fans the necessity of more financial support.
The athletic department wants to increase membership in its main booster organization — the Terrapin Club — to more than 10,000. The club had about 7,000 members in June.
The club raises about $8.8 million per year in unrestricted donations used for athletic scholarships. That's not enough to fulfill a long-standing university goal of the club financing 100 percent of such scholarships so that the school's operating budget doesn't need to be tapped. The annual scholarship bill amounts to about $11 million.
Maryland also has been emphasizing "young alumni" events, holding receptions before away football and basketball games. The school wants to deepen "the culture of giving right out of school," Pine said.
Terrapin Club president Colin Potts said leaving the ACC was "an initial shock" to fans because Maryland had been in the conference since its inception in 1953.
"But it is a fantastic opportunity," Potts said. "We'll create new rivalries, and Byrd Stadium will be full."
Of course, Maryland can't promise fans that it will win football games regularly. The team doubled its wins from two to four in 2012 and anticipates more improvement this fall in its ACC final season. But Big Ten competition will pose a tougher challenge.
Even before it decided to join the Big Ten, Maryland launched a "rebranding" effort a few years ago to try to forge a greater connection with the state.
The football uniforms and field markings — which, in recent years, had highlighted the word "Terps" — now more prominently display "Maryland," much as the University of Texas football team features "Texas" on its uniforms.
It's no coincidence that Maryland's flashiest uniforms are called "Maryland Pride." In 2011, the football team used its nationally televised season opener against Miami to debut the uniforms — a dizzying combination of red, white, black and gold in a design reminiscent of the state flag.
Fan reaction to the uniforms was mixed. Miami Heat basketball star LeBron James tweeted: "OH GOSH! Maryland uniforms #Ewwwww!"
But everyone seemed to notice.
"I think the emphasis on Maryland Pride — manifested through some of the uniforms — has helped get some momentum," Pine said. "It certainly helped us with a lot of exposure."
Baltimore Sun reporter Chris Korman contributed to this article.