As we wrap up the long 4th of July weekend, one question is pushed forward Spinning speculation On the future of college athletics: Is this Notre Dame’s last Independence Day?
Since last week’s startling announcement USC and UCLA are headed to the Big Ten In 2024, all will be quiet beneath the Golden Dome. No matter how long it lasts, it’s safe to assume the Fighting Irish have been weighing their biggest decision for decades. Maybe sometime.
Earth changed again last Thursday, other attractive acquisition candidates available when consolidating industry power into two conferences, the Big Ten and the SEC, are the next consideration. Notre Dame stands out at the top of that list—always favored, and perhaps vulnerable.
“Next decision,” said an industry insider Game chart, “actually with Notre Dame.” The same person speculated that the decision “could come in a week, or six months, or a year. We don’t know.”
It stands to reason that the Big Ten will always take on the object of its undying affection, now or sometime in the dim future. It doesn’t matter if Notre Dame is 17th, 19th or 21st in the league, the Big Ten will make it reach the big prize it’s been chasing for ages. So the Irish, as always, can be selective and patient.
A source familiar with the school’s thinking said: Game chart “Freedom is the will and leader in the clubhouse.” It will take a lot to move Notre Dame from its cherished identity, but the instability of the entire landscape is worrisome, and could further affect Irish vision.
Two areas to keep an eye on: the rules of both the College Football Playoff and the Atlantic Coast Conference. If either or both collapse, Notre Dame could be forced into the Big Ten. Under its current contract, the playoffs will cease in January 2026. There is no guarantee that another iteration of it will take place at any scale. “Most of the writing assumes the playoffs are going to get bigger,” says an industry source. “I’m not sure about that assumption.”
A reduced Big 12 and Pac-12 are likely to remain frozen. ACC may also be sidelined. It’s possible the Big Ten and SEC could each hold their own mini-playoffs, and then the champions of the two leagues could meet for a national title — or they wouldn’t, and each conference could declare its supremacy without putting it on the field. (If you want an awkward throwback to the ugly bowl system, this is it.)
Notre Dame wants a path to a football national championship. If all but the Big Ten and the SEC were reduced to non-rival status, that would knock them out of Independence Island. Or, if the ACC splits while hanging on to an unfavorable contract with ESPN for too long, the school may have to think about its sports competing in that league and may have to relocate.
The school of thought on why it’s time for Notre Dame to join the Big Ten has two classrooms: national planning and revenue.
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One of the reasons the Irish loved their independence was the ability to schedule their football games from coast to coast, appealing to a national fanbase and philosophy (both athletic and academic); With arch-rival USC in the Big Ten fold along with UCLA, Notre Dame’s ability to play on the West Coast remains a possibility every year. So is the East Coast with Rutgers and Maryland. Additionally, there is a core of “neighborhood” opponents the Irish have played consistently in Purdue (87 meetings), Michigan State (79), Michigan (44) and Northwestern (49).
However, it looks like the USC-Notre Dame series will continue without them being conference brothers. The number of schools that would turn down the chance to schedule Notre Dame would be small anyway.
As for revenue, which has become the dominant talking point for everyone and everything related to restructuring, Big Ten membership certainly has its benefits. The league’s new media-rights deals will shower money on member schools. Many feel that Notre Dame would be far behind in that regard if it didn’t join the conference. That may not be the case.
But don’t think for a minute that the Irish school is going to abandon the guiding principle since its rise to national prominence in football over a century ago and leave money alone. The financial gap between independent status and Big Ten membership may be considered manageable by the Notre Dame administration. It has never been an athletic department operating on a budget the size of Texas or Ohio State, and never felt the need or desire to spend $200 million a year on sports.
And that’s at the heart of the identity Notre Dame doesn’t want to give up: It’s a kind of football-education-marketing powerhouse. It is the only school in the top 20 of US News & World Report’s national university rankings. And NCAA football attendance. Notre Dame is ranked 17th in the latest academic rankings and has fluctuated between 15th and 17th in home attendance from 2017-21 (except for 2020, when attendance at college sports was negligible in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic).
Notre Dame ranks eighth in the number of non-bowl/playoff games watched by at least three million people in recent seasons, a number that resonates with television executives. For a sports media watch. The Irish had a total of 16 games with three million or more viewers in 2018, ’19 and ’21 (tossing the 2020 numbers due to the difference in the number of games played across the country). That’s behind Alabama (26), Ohio State (25), Georgia (22), Michigan (22), Oklahoma (22), Penn State (19) and LSU (18). Notably, every school ahead of Notre Dame on the list is a current or future member of the Big Ten or SEC. And the next four for the Irish (Auburn, Wisconsin, Florida and Texas A&M).
There are other small, private, academically prestigious schools that have had success in football, notably Stanford and Northwestern in recent years. But they couldn’t match the size of Notre Dame’s following—they didn’t put more than 75,000 Buds in seats or put three million of them in front of a screen.
Notre Dame managed to get everything it always wanted: academic prestige, football success, enough money to sponsor more than 20 competitive varsity sports—and the cherished autonomy of FBS independence. Even in the turmoil-ridden world of college sports, it doesn’t give up anything willingly. The guess here is that the school maintains its independence as long as it can until July 4, 2023 and beyond.
It will only change if the current structure continues to be deeply disrupted. Hey, anything can happen. While most of college sports wait for signs from Notre Dame, the school can wait for signs from everyone else.
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