Blue and Gold Illustrated

August 2022

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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BLUEGOLDONLINE.COM AUGUST 2022 5 ENGEL'S ANGLE PATRICK ENGEL Patrick Engel has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since March 2020. He can be reached at E ven after the latest and per- haps most potent conference realignment earthquake, the three pillars of Notre Dame's vi- ability as a football independent are still standing: 1) a place to put the Irish's other sports, 2) a TV partner and 3) access to college football's championship. The ACC still exists as a home for Notre Dame's non-football teams. The Irish will have no shortage of buyers for its next football media rights deal that will begin in 2026. The four- team College Football Playoff format has provided a sufficient cham- pionship path for the Irish. Furthermore, it's hard to picture Notre Dame being hurt by an inevitable expanded playoff format with athletics director Jack Swarbrick on the playoff's management committee. Easy call then, right? Stay indepen- dent until one of those three things and/ or the ability to play a national schedule is threatened. Well, sort of. While the independent model remains sound, the idea of joining a conference takes on a meaning it never has before — one that ought to make Notre Dame con- sider jumping aboard in a way it never has. For nearly all of Notre Dame's 135- year history as an independent, confer- ences have been a collection of regional teams. Yet, Notre Dame has maintained its view of itself as a national school that desires a national schedule. No prior rounds of realignment have threatened its ability to put one together, and even this one likely won't. USC vs. Notre Dame is still a confirmed yearly game. Now, though? The Big Ten — already beyond its traditional Midwest roots — smashed whatever ounce of regional as- sociation it had left to smithereens by adding USC and UCLA June 30. It's an amalgamation of schools from coast to coast that is a conference in name only. It's unlike anything college sports have seen. The Big Ten has some of Notre Dame's biggest rivals, and it wants the Irish with them. In all of the Notre Dame's prior dances and discussions with the Big Ten, be- coming a member meant tethering itself to a region. Not anymore. Never has a conference offered a national schedule like the Big Ten now can. Redefining the idea of a conference is just one layer in Notre Dame's analysis. Never has the financial trade-off of inde- pendence been larger (or will be shortly). Notre Dame has long accepted in- dependence comes at a cost. The Irish earn an average of $15 million annually from their NBC deal. The ACC distrib- uted $10.8 million to the school as a par- tial member in 2019, the most recent year with available figures. Notre Dame has stood firm as an in- dependent even as the SEC and Big Ten surpassed a $40 million per school an- nual payout in the 2010s. And even as the SEC blew past $50 million. Despite an upcoming new TV contract of its own and the ACC setting a revenue record in 2020, Notre Dame's cost of in- dependence will rise to new levels. The Big Ten is expected to sign a media rights contract worth $1 billion, and that figure was reported before it snatched the Cali- fornia schools. Its payouts could reach nine figures before the end of the decade. The SEC could hit the same number an- nually in its new deal (effective in 2024) with Texas and Oklahoma aboard. Notre Dame has a clause in its ACC part- nership that if it joins a conference between now and 2036, it must be the ACC. But becoming a full ACC member doesn't of- fer them the same financial upside the Big Ten now could, even when factoring in the buyout price (an estimated $100 million). The ACC paid its full members an average of just $36 million in 2020, and conference schools are locked into a media rights con- tract through 2035-36. (A full member school that leaves the league forfeits the ACC's and its new conference's media revenue in that time frame). Expanding is the only way to re-negotiate and appreciably raise the revenue. At some point, the gap be- tween Notre Dame's earnings and the highest conference pay- outs seems destined to grow too wide to ignore. When will that be? That's for Swarbrick and President Fr. John Jenkins to consider as they fore- cast where this is all going. However, Notre Dame is closer to that point than it was before the Big Ten became the latest expansion aggressor. What's clear now is Notre Dame has the leverage to plot its next steps on its own timeline. It knows it's the most coveted piece left on the realignment board and won't be given a take-it-or- leave-it chance. It should wait to learn the outlook for its next TV deal, wait to see what the next playoff format looks like and reassess the ACC's stability as a non-football sports home. Maybe Notre Dame decides for now the cost of independence is still accept- able and believes enough oxygen to make it viable will remain through the next se- ries of moves. Its cultural and traditional foundation has proven nearly unshakable for 130 years, after all. But never has potential conference membership meshed closer with those cultural ideas while simultaneously evok- ing key questions about the practicality of independence's financial trade-offs. It sure feels like the college athletics landscape has reached a point where mapping out a future as a Big Ten mem- ber is a necessary move for Notre Dame, even if the university chooses not to act on it now or at all. ✦ The ACC needs Notre Dame now more than ever, but the Big Ten may end up being the better choice for the Fighting Irish in the long run. PHOTO COURTESY NOTRE DAME ATHLETICS What's The Price To Remaining Independent?

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