For many, many years I was among a large group of college football fans who insisted that Notre Dame need not join a conference to remain competitive, but I’m starting to shift my thinking. The creation of the ACC Network, the Irish signing their grant of rights away until 2036 and the College Football Playoff have created a perfect storm that might lead to end of Irish independence. Obviously, Notre Dame wouldn’t do anything until its home television contract with NBC expires in 2025, but by then it will either be painfully obvious it needs to join a conference or that it can survive on its own*. The College Football Playoff contract also expires in 2025.
One of the reasons, other than being different, that I like Notre Dame being independent is because it spreads great football games across networks that aren’t tied to ESPN. I really had hope that the Big Ten would do something similar and break at least partially away from ESPN and give its rights to FOX (which partially owns the Big Ten Network) or NBC. It didn’t happen, and while Notre Dame’s contract with NBC made a lot of sense initially, the school now makes less than almost every other Power 5 school.
What we know: Notre Dame pulls about $15 million from NBC and another $6.2 million from the ACC/ESPN deal, as it stands right now. It’s believed another $5-$8 million in revenue from ACC Network will close the gap between it and most of the other Power 5 schools that aren’t in the ACC, but why the need for income source complexity?
Let’s talk about tradition for a moment. I’m not a fan of Notre Dame playing Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue, or any other team in the Big Ten. I really believe the only thing it promotes are the other schools its playing. Michigan and Ohio State provide no obvious recruiting benefit to Notre Dame. Since I didn't grow up watching Michigan and Notre Dame, it isn’t something I need to see every year.
Side note: I don’t want to see Michigan play Ohio State every year either, but television insists that it’s a great game, when clearly it is not.
I understand that the same history I just derided also says Notre Dame and Navy play each other and I understand the history the two schools have dating back to World War II. Fine.
But I really like when Notre Dame plays opponents that are out of their region and provide them a recruiting benefit. And this is where playing in the ACC will help them recruit. Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, New York. Seemingly everyone from the Midwest is traveling to those states to recruit and very few are traveling to the Midwest to recruit. Why? Because no one wants to live in the Midwest anymore and there’s no advantage for an up-and-coming prospect to live there.
So, while keeping their ‘traditional’ rivals would keep old school fans happy, it does very little to help recruiting or anything else that seems to matter.
The next, last and most important complication: The College Football Playoff. As long as the committee is going to put an emphasis on winning a conference then Notre Dame is going to take a perceived hit no matter what. Now that the Big 12 has decided to hold a conference championship game, the Irish can’t say they’re not the only team without a chance to play a conference title game.
Joining the ACC as a full time member and consistently facing Florida State, Clemson, Louisville is more important than playing region ‘rivals’ who impact nothing. Notre Dame will continue to sell out its home games and probably the stadiums of the teams it visits for the foreseeable future. The Irish will command – and receive – more money once they become full-time ACC members and the rest of us will wonder why we defended their lack of a conference home for so long.
All this is, of course, pre-mature, because I don’t suspect Notre Dame will be able to join the ACC while its contract remains with NBC. Under any other circumstances, NBC probably wouldn’t care if they joined a conference, but NBC pays all that money for a national schedule and beyond two or three non-conference games, the Irish cannot guarantee great home opponents as part of its conference schedule.
I did mention all of this is pre-mature? Right. Notre Dame will be a full participant in the ACC by 2025 at the latest.
E-mail Damien at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @damienbowman.