The University of Notre Dame is a private Catholic research university in Indiana. It was founded on November 26, 1842 by the French priest, Father Edward Sorin and built on land donated by Irish immigrants. Today, it is considered one of the most prestigious universities in the world with an acceptance rate of just over 8%.
The college football season is a time of the year that has long been associated with tradition. College football realignment and the power of independence are two important aspects of this tradition.
The ACC was already thinking about how it could win a bigger, more lucrative TV contract before Texas and Oklahoma upended college football last week. Expansion, according to many sports directors at the time, was the only true solution. Other modifications would be minor, but introducing a brand name to the league may result in a significant increase in income.
Only a few months ago, a couple of the league’s ADs questioned whether Texas might be the solution to their league’s issues. Commissioner Greg Sankey of the SEC, on the other hand, moved faster. The Longhorns, on the other hand, were always the backup plan.
Notre Dame is the squad that the ACC truly wants, the club that the conference has lusted for for a decade.
“They are aware of the ACC’s interest,” stated incoming ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips at the conference’s opening event last week, just hours before word of Texas and Oklahoma’s interest in joining the SEC started to circulate. “It hasn’t exactly been modest. They are aware of our whereabouts. Who knows what will happen in the future? I like the schools we have, but you must constantly be prepared to add.”
The pressure on the ACC to entice the Fighting Irish is higher than ever now that Texas and Oklahoma are set to join the SEC, adding to that league’s already formidable roster. The new-look SEC, which shares a footprint with the ACC, could potentially earn double the ACC’s per-school distribution — the ACC distributed $32.3 million per team last year, while the SEC distributed $43.7 million per team — but the SEC will earn more with the new ESPN contract, so with the addition of Texas and Oklahoma, new money could exceed $70 million in the future. The SEC already had $721 million in revenue, compared to $497.2 million for the ACC. Aside from money, the attraction of a mega-conference only a step below the NFL would offer the SEC a significant recruitment edge over its rival.
Notre Dame is a lifeline for many people.
One administrator said, “Notre Dame provides genuine value.” “They’re the only significant reward available.”
Currently, the ACC is home to all of Notre Dame’s Olympic sports, and that contract — which continues until 2036 and coincides with the league’s TV agreement — stipulates that if the Irish ever wish to join a football conference, it must be the ACC or suffer a financial penalty of more than $150 million.
Indeed, when the COVID-19 epidemic wiped out schedules throughout the nation last season, the ACC welcomed Notre Dame with open arms. Notre Dame joined the ACC for a one-year trial run in 2020, going undefeated in the regular season, participating in the ACC title game, and qualifying for the College Football Playoff. In fact, since Notre Dame was entitled for a full share of the ACC’s income, the school made more money from its media rights than it would have if it had been an independent.
AD “Independence remains a goal” for Notre Dame, according to Jack Swarbick. Matt Cashore is a reporter for USA TODAY Sports.
The expectation among ACC officials was that the experience would be so beneficial to the Irish that a strong effort would be made to make the agreement permanent.
Not so fast, said Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick.
“”We had a great year as an ACC member,” Swarbrick told ESPN, “but it also offered our fans that contrast.” So independence remains a priority and essential to us, not just because of their desire, but also because of my own, our own judgment.”
This is Swarbrick’s signature phrase, and it’s a jab at the ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12, all of which would love to sign the Irish to new television contracts. For the time being, they all need Notre Dame more than Notre Dame requires them.
One ACC AD remarked, “Notre Dame is its own beast.” “We enjoy having Notre Dame because we know it helps us earn money, but we don’t always like it when they grab bowl bids and other things. But I don’t believe we squandered an opportunity. You won’t be able to get Notre Dame to do much.”
As one Power 5 AD put it, “independence is fundamental to Notre Dame’s character,” and it would take a lot of TV money to alter that for an athletic department that is already expected to be the fifth-richest in the nation, according to Forbes.
“Notre Dame is not in financial trouble,” the AD said. “But they aren’t Notre Dame if they don’t have their independence, and no president or AD wants to be the one to give it away.”
Another administrator acquainted with Notre Dame’s ideology says the institution needs three things to preserve its independence. The first is a television partner, which is unlikely to be an issue due to the school’s long-standing connection with NBC. The second is a permanent home for its Olympic sports, which the ACC has promised until 2036. The last option is a route to the College Football Playoff, which may become even more crowded if Swarbrick’s 12-team playoff expansion becomes a reality.
Only teams that win their conference championship may receive a first-round bye, meaning Notre Dame will always have to play one more postseason game under the proposed playoff format. Even so, Swarbrick sees it as a victory for the Irish, who have spent years defending themselves against claims that their playoff route, which does not involve a conference championship game, is too easy.
“I like the idea that if we play one of the teams that has a bye on January 1st, we’ll have played the same amount of games,” Swarbrick said. “I’ve always thought the idea [that we don’t play a conference championship game] was ridiculous, but that’s no longer an option. Even if we didn’t play in a conference championship, we’ve played the same amount of games if we’re in that round.”
For leagues trying to persuade Notre Dame to do anything totally against to its fundamental ideology, this offers little power. Money, however, does talk, even in the case of Notre Dame. After all, Texas was already the wealthiest program in the nation, and it’s leaving the Big 12 to earn even more money… OK, a lot more.
Swarbrick seems to be well positioned to retain independence while updating income sources, even on that front.
Fighting Irish TV is a direct-to-consumer streaming strategy that Notre Dame used to broadcast the team’s spring game this year. Matt Cashore is a reporter for USA TODAY Sports.
Realignment is all about money from linear TV networks among the conferences. Swarbrick at Notre Dame is seeing a future in which the Irish have ownership of their own streaming channel.
Fighting Irish TV, a direct-to-consumer streaming format, debuted this spring and features archival games and feature documentaries. Notre Dame’s spring game was even aired on it. The reaction has been extremely favorable, according to the school, with Fighting Irish TV generating 58,000 minutes of watching time on its first day after the team’s pro day. It’s now free, but Notre Dame plans to introduce a membership model by the end of the year.
Even if the Big Ten or even the ACC’s linear TV income outpaces Notre Dame’s NBC deal, membership fees for Fighting Irish TV may eventually make up the difference. And, in Swarbrick’s opinion, that’s only the beginning.
“It’s part of a larger, more significant issue we’re really focused on,” Swarbrick told ESPN, “which is the need to fundamentally transform the connection with the fans from a transactional to a participatory one.” “We’re not simply looking to sell you a ticket. We want to know who you are, what matters to you about Notre Dame, and how we can help you develop that connection by making resources accessible to you based on your interests.”
Swarbrick said he learned a valuable lesson from the online game Fortnite, in which the economic model is based on user involvement in community development.
Fans might build transportable avatars in the future, buy NFT tickets that contain actual value beyond their seat for a game, or earn points for participation that provide access to unique benefits, similar to a frequent flyer program, according to Swarbrick.
While none of the Fighting Irish TV ideas are currently proven money generators, they would all be much more challenging in a world where Notre Dame isn’t an independent. Conference tie-ins may limit the freedom of the Irish corporate model as a result of independence.
That’s the truth, even when college football seems to be on the verge of total anarchy. Independence is prized at Notre Dame.
Perhaps the climate will continue to evolve, and Notre Dame’s viewpoint will alter as well. It would definitely benefit the Irish to join up rather than be left out in a future where one or two superconferences dominate the playoffs.
It’s also conceivable that a league devises the ideal income model, which Notre Dame would find difficult to refuse. This may lead to a contract similar to what Texas has with the Big 12, in which Notre Dame receives a bigger share of the revenue pie due to its financial influence on the league. According to one ACC official, the league has to think big and move quickly.
Swarbrick will continue to listen for the time being. Independence has always been a calculated risk, and he believes it would be stupid not to reassess the calculation on a regular basis.
“My primary responsibility is to consider the following question: What comes next? What’s next?” According to ESPN, Swarbrick stated. “All we have to do now is be disciplined and intelligent, and keep an eye on the future trends. Every year, we question ourselves, “Is this still the correct strategy?””
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