As we wind up our long 4th of July weekend, one question has moved to the forefront of swirling speculation about the future of college athletics: Was it the last Independence Day of Notre Dame as a freelancer?
Since the contradictory announcement last week that the USC and UCLA are headed to the Big Ten in 2024, all is quiet under the golden dome. The longer it stays that way, one can guess that the Irish fighters are weighing their biggest decision in decades. Maybe ever.
After the earth changed hands again last Thursday, the next consideration was the other attractive acquisition candidates available as the industry works to join forces at two conferences, the Big Ten and the SEC. Notre Dame stands alone at the top of that list – more desirable than ever, and perhaps also vulnerable.
“Next decision,” said an industry insider. Sports Illustrated, “It really falls to Notre Dame.” The same person speculated that a decision could come “in a week, six months, or a year from now. We don’t know.”
It makes sense that the Big Ten will always take on the topic of his undying affection, now or sometime in the murky future. It doesn’t matter if Notre Dame will be the 17th, 19th or 21st team in the league, the Big Ten will make him work to win the big prize he’s chased for time immemorial. So the Irish can, as always, have choice and patience.
A source familiar with the school’s thinking said: Sports Illustrated “Independence remains the priority and pioneer in the club.” It would take a lot to distance Notre Dame from its cherished identity, but the instability of the entire landscape remains a concern, and could further affect the Irish outlook.
Two areas to watch: the fate of both the college football game and the Atlantic Coast Conference. If one or both of them collapsed, Notre Dame could be forced into the Big Ten. According to its current contract, the playoff round ceases to exist in January 2026. There is no guarantee that it will be replaced by another iteration, of any size. “The vast majority of the writing assumes there is a playoff, and it will increase,” says the industry source. “I’m not sure about that assumption.”
Big 12 and mini Pac-12 may be frozen. It is also possible to push the ACC aside. The Big Ten and the SEC will likely hold their own mini-playoffs and then meet the champions of the two tournaments for a presumed national title – or they don’t, and each conference can declare their supremacy without settling it on the field. (If you want lousy rebound for a lousy bowl system, this will be it.)
Notre Dame wants a route to a national football championship. If everything but the Big Ten and the SEC were reduced to non-competing status, it could force them off Independence Island. Or, if the ACC shards split during their long stay in an unfavorable contract with ESPN, the school will have to consider its sports competing in that league and may need to transfer them.
The school of thought that explains why it’s finally time for Notre Dame to join the Big Ten has two semesters: National Scheduling and Revenue.
Scroll to continue
One of the reasons why the Irish loved their independence was the ability to schedule football matches from coast to coast, appealing to a patriotic fan audience and a recruiting philosophy (sporting and academic); With longtime contender USC in the Big Ten fold alongside UCLA, Notre Dame’s ability to play on the West Coast will continue to be applicable annually. So does the East Coast with Rutgers and Maryland. In addition, there is a core of “neighbors” opponents that the Irish have played regularly over the years at Purdue (87 encounters), Michigan State (79), Michigan (44) and Northwestern (49).
However, it seems very likely that the USC-Notre Dame series will continue without the brothers being in the convention. The number of schools that would turn down an opportunity to schedule Notre Dame is likely to remain small no matter what.
In terms of revenue, which has become the dominant discussion point for everyone and everything regarding reorganization, Big Ten membership will definitely have its advantages. The league’s new media rights contracts will be the money leftover for member schools. Many people have assumed that Notre Dame would be seriously late in this regard if it did not join the conference. This may not be the case.
But don’t think for a moment that the Irish will let money alone drive the decision to abandon what has been a guiding principle since the school rose to prominence in football more than a century ago. The financial gap between maintaining independent status and membership in the Big Ten can be considered manageable by the management of Notre Dame. This has never been a sports department with a budget the size of Texas or Ohio, and it likely won’t feel the need or desire to spend in the region of $200 million a year on sports.
This is the essence of the identity that Notre Dame does not want to give up: it is a unique football academy marketing powerhouse. It is the only school in the country to be ranked 20 out of the top 20 in both US News & World Report’s national university rankings And the Attend NCAA football. Notre Dame ranks 17th in the most recent academic rankings and varied between 15 and 17 in home attendance from 2017 to 21 (except for 2020, when attendance was an insignificant metric in college sports during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic).
In terms of numbers that resonate with TV executives, Notre Dame ranks eighth in the number of non-tournament/qualifier-based games watched in recent seasons by at least three million people, In watching sports media. The Irish had a total of 16 games with three million or more spectators in 2018, 19 and 21 (thrown the 2020 numbers due to the disparity in the number of games played across the country). This comes after Alabama (26), Ohio (25), Georgia (22), Michigan (22), Oklahoma (22), Pennsylvania (19) and LSU (18). It should be noted that every school before Notre Dame on the list is a current or future member of the Big Ten or SEC. The next four after the Irish are also (Auburn, Wisconsin, Florida and Texas A&M).
There are other smaller, private, academically prestigious schools that have had success in football, most notably Stanford and Northwestern in recent years. But they can’t match the size of Notre Dame’s followers – they don’t seat more than 75,000 ass or park three million of them in front of a screen.
Notre Dame has, for good, been able to have everything it wanted: academic standing, soccer success, enough money to fund more than 20 competitive college sports — and cherished FBS independence. You wouldn’t give up any of that willingly, even in the turbulent world of college sports. The guesswork here is that the school maintains its independence for as long as possible, until July 4, 2023 and beyond.
This changes only if the current structure continues to destabilize in a profound way. Which is what could happen. While a lot of college sports are waiting for signs from Notre Dame, the school can wait for signs from everyone else.
More reaction to the conference reorganization: