As we wrap up the Fourth of July long weekend, one question has come to the forefront of swirling speculation about the future of college athletics: Was this Notre Dame’s last Independence Day as a ‘independent ?
Since the shocking announcement last week that USC and UCLA are heading to the Big Ten in 2024, all is quiet under the Golden Dome. The longer it stays that way, the more it can be assumed that the Fighting Irish are weighing their biggest decision in decades. Maybe never.
After the ground changed again last Thursday, the next consideration was the other attractive acquisition candidates available as the industry consolidates its power in two conferences, the Big Ten and the SEC. Notre-Dame is alone at the top of this list, still just as desirable and perhaps just as vulnerable.
“The next move,” said an industry insider Sports Illustrated, “truly rests with Our Lady.” This same person speculated that the decision could come “in a week, six months or a year from now. We do not know.
It stands to reason that the Big Ten would always take the object of their undying affection, now or in the hazy future. Regardless of whether Notre Dame would be the 17th, 19th or 21st team in the league, the Big Ten would ensure they landed the big prize they’ve been chasing since time immemorial. So the Irish can, as always, afford to be picky and patient.
A source close to the school’s thinking said Sports Illustrated that “independence remains the preference and the leader in the clubhouse”. It will take a long time to displace Notre Dame from its cherished identity, but the instability of the wider landscape remains a concern and could still affect the Irish outlook.
Two areas to watch: the fate of the college football playoffs and the Atlantic Coast Conference. If either or both collapse, Notre Dame could be forced into the Big Ten. According to his current contract, the playoffs will cease to exist in January 2026. There is no guarantee that another iteration of these will take its place, no matter how small. “The vast majority of the writing assumes a playoff, and that it’s going to get bigger,” the industry source explains. “I’m not sure about that assumption.”
It is possible for the diminished Big 12 and Pac-12 to be frozen. It is possible that the ACC will also be set aside. It’s possible the Big Ten and SEC each hold their own mini-playoffs, then the champions of the two leagues meet for a putative national title — or they don’t, and each conference can proclaim its superiority without settling it on field. (If you want a lousy throwback to the lousy bowl system, this would be it.)
Notre Dame wants a path to a national football championship. If all but the Big Ten and the SEC are reduced to non-competitor status, it could force them off Independence Island. Or, if the ACC breaks out in the middle of its long stint in a disadvantageous contract with ESPN, the school should think about its sports that compete in that league and might need to be relocated.
The school of thought for why it might finally be time for Notre Dame to join the Big Ten contains two classrooms: national programming and revenue.
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One of the reasons the Irish have loved their independence is the ability to schedule their football matches from coast to coast, appealing to a national constituency of fans and recruitment philosophy (both athletic and academic); with USC’s former rival in the Big Ten with UCLA, Notre Dame’s ability to play on the West Coast would remain annually viable. It would be the same for the East Coast, with Rutgers and Maryland. Plus, there’s the core of “neighborhood” opponents the Irish have faced regularly over the years at Purdue (87 games), Michigan State (79), Michigan (44) and Northwestern (49).
However, it seems very likely that the USC-Notre Dame series will continue without them being conference brothers. The number of schools refusing to schedule Notre Dame is likely to remain low no matter what.
In terms of income, which has become the dominant talking point for everyone and everything when it comes to realignment, joining the Big Ten would definitely have its benefits. The league’s new media rights deals will be a geyser of money raining down on member schools. Many people have speculated that Our Lady would fall dangerously far behind in this regard if she did not join the conference. This may not be the case.
But don’t think for a minute that the Irish are going to let money alone decide whether or not to abandon what has been a guiding principle since the school achieved national prominence in football over a century ago. The financial gap between maintaining independent status and joining the Big Ten may well be considered manageable by the Notre Dame administration. It’s never been an athletic department that operates on a budget the size of Texas or the State of Ohio, and probably doesn’t feel the need or desire to spend around $200 million a year. for Sport.
This is at the heart of the identity that Notre Dame does not want to abandon: it is a unique power in the field of football, academy and marketing. It is the only school in the country that ranks in the top 20 of US News & World Report’s National University Rankings. and Participation in NCAA football. Notre Dame is 17th in the most recent academic rankings and has ranged between 15th and 17th in home attendance from 2017-21 (with the exception of 2020, when attendance was a worthless metric in college sports for the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic).
In numbers that resonate with television executives, Notre Dame ranks eighth in the number of non-bowl/playoff games watched in recent seasons by at least three million people, by Sports Media Watch. The Irish have had a total of 16 games with three million or more viewers in 2018, 2019 and 21 (2020 numbers launched due to disparity in the number of games played across the country). This ranks behind only Alabama (26), Ohio State (25), Georgia (22), Michigan (22), Oklahoma (22), Penn State (19) and LSU (18). It should be noted that 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 after the Irish are too (Auburn, Wisconsin, Florida and Texas A&M).
There are other smaller, private, and academically prestigious schools that have had success in football, including Stanford and Northwestern in recent years. But they can’t match the size of Notre Dame followers – they don’t put more than 75,000 cigarette butts in seats or park three million in front of a screen.
Notre Dame has, forever, been able to have everything it wanted: academic prestige, football success, enough money to fund more than 20 competitive college sports – and the cherished autonomy of FBS independence. He won’t give up any of that willingly, even in a turbulent college sports world. The assumption here is that the school maintains its independence for as long as it can, until July 4, 2023 and beyond.
This only changes if the current structure continues to destabilize in a profound way. Which, hey, could happen. While much of college sports is waiting for signs from Notre Dame, the school can afford to wait for signs from everyone.
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