As we wrap up the long July 4th weekend, one question has moved to the forefront of swirling speculation about the future of college athletics: Was this Notre Dame’s last Independence Day as an independent?
Since last week’s earth-shattering announcement that USC and UCLA are headed to the Big Ten in 2024, all has been quiet under the Gold Dome. The longer it stays that way, the more one can assume the Fighting Irish are weighing their biggest decision in decades. May be someday.
After the Earth shifted again last Thursday, the next consideration was the other attractive acquisition candidates available as the industry consolidates power in two conferences, the Big Ten and the SEC. Notre Dame stands alone at the top of this list—as desirable as ever, and perhaps just as vulnerable.
“The next decision,” said an industry insider Sports Illustrated, “really rests with Notre Dame.” The same person speculated that a 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 the object of their undying affection, now or sometime in the nebulous future. It doesn’t matter if Notre Dame is the 17th, 19th or 21st team in the league, the Big Ten will be in the running to win the big prize it’s been chasing since time immemorial. So the Irish can, as always, afford to be picky and patient.
That’s according to a source familiar with the school’s thinking Sports Illustrated that “independence remains the preference and leader in the club”. It will take a long time to dislodge Notre Dame from its treasured identity, but the instability of the entire landscape remains a problem and may further affect the Irish outlook.
Two areas to watch: The fate 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 playoff ceases to exist in January 2026. There is no guarantee another iteration of it will take its place, regardless of size. “Most of the writing suggests a playoff and that he’s going to get bigger,” the industry source said. “I’m not sure about that assumption.”
It’s possible the downsized Big 12 and Pac-12 could be frozen. ACC may also be pushed aside. It’s possible that the Big Ten and SEC could each hold their own mini-playoffs, then the champions of the two leagues would meet for a presumptive national title — or they wouldn’t, and each conference could declare its supremacy without settling it on the field. (If you want a disgusting throwback to the disgusting bowl system, this would be it.)
Notre Dame wants a road to a football national championship. If all but the Big Ten and SEC are reduced to non-contender status, it could force them out of Independence Island. Or, if the ACC collapses amid its long stint in an unprofitable contract with ESPN, the school will have to consider its sports competing in that league and may have to relocate.
The school of thought on why it might finally be time for Notre Dame to join the Big Ten contains two classrooms: national planning and revenue.
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One of the reasons the Irish love their independence is the ability to schedule their soccer games from coast to coast, attracting the attention of national fans and recruiting philosophies (both athletic and academic); with arch-rival USC in the Big Ten along with UCLA, Notre Dame’s ability to play on the West Coast will remain viable every year. So would the East Coast, with Rutgers and Maryland. It also has the core of “neighborhood” opponents the Irish have played regularly over the years in Purdue (87 meetings), 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 that would turn down the opportunity to schedule Notre Dame is likely to remain small no matter what.
In terms of revenue, which has become a dominant talking point for everyone and everything regarding the realignment, membership in the Big Ten would certainly have its advantages. The league’s new media rights deals will be a geyser of cash pouring in on member schools. Many people theorized that Notre Dame would fall dangerously far behind in that regard if it didn’t join the conference. This may not be the case.
But don’t think for a minute that the Irish will let money alone determine whether to abandon what has been a guiding principle since the school rose to national football prominence more than a century ago. The financial difference between maintaining independent status and membership in the Big Ten can be considered manageable by the Notre Dame administration. This has never been an athletic department operating on a budget the size of Texas or Ohio State, and probably doesn’t feel the need or desire to spend about $200 million a year on sports.
It’s at the core of the identity Notre Dame doesn’t want to give up: It’s a one-of-a-kind football, academic and marketing powerhouse. It is the only school in the country to rank in the top 20 of both the US News & World Report national university rankings and Attending NCAA football. Notre Dame is 17th in the most recent academic rankings and has fluctuated between 15th and 17th in home attendance from 2017-21 (except for 2020, when attendance was a useless metric in college sports during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic).
In numbers that resonate with TV executives, Notre Dame ranks eighth in the most non-bowl/playoff games watched in recent seasons by at least three million people, according to Sports Media Watch. The Irish had a total of 16 games with three million or more in attendance in 2018, ’19 and ’21 (distorting the 2020 numbers due to the discrepancy in the number of games played across the country). That ranks behind only Alabama (26), Ohio State (25), Georgia (22), Michigan (22), Oklahoma (22), Penn State (19) and LSU (18). It’s worth noting that every school before 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, academically prestigious schools that have had success in football, most notably Stanford and Northwestern in recent years. But they can’t reach the size of Notre Dame’s following – they don’t seat over 75,000 bums or park three million of them in front of the screen.
Notre Dame has forever managed to have everything it wanted: academic prestige, football success, enough money to fund more than 20 competitive varsity sports — and the prized autonomy of FBS independence. It won’t give up any of that willingly, even in a college sports world rocked by turbulence. The school is supposed to retain its independence for as long as it can until 4 July 2023 and beyond.
This only changes if the current structure continues to be destabilized in a profound way. Which, hey, could happen. While much of college sports waits for signs from Notre Dame, the school can afford to wait for signs from everyone else.
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