Right up there with Rachel and Ross, Notre Dame and the Big Ten Conference have been a massive ‘will they/won’t they?’ couple for over a century. The geography, numerous storied rivalries, and academic compatibility have made the pairing seem like a no-brainer to many, but aside from hockey, the two have never worked things out. However, with the Big Ten’s addition of USC (and UCLA), that all could change. Let’s look at why this unprecedented realignment could be the greatest chance for the Big Ten to reel in their golden-domed white whale.
First, the scheduling opportunities seem to finally line up for Notre Dame. Notre Dame Football has long valued independence due in part to its national, coast-to-coast schedule. While the Midwest has given the Irish rivals in the Michigan Wolverines, Purdue Boilermakers, and Michigan State Spartans, the fact of the matter is these are all secondary to the arch-rival Trojans out at Southern Cal. As the years passed, the Big Ten foes came and went, but USC remained a constant annual opponent. The only other school with a longer continuous rivalry with the Irish is Navy, dating back to an agreement between the schools during World War II. Preserving these two opponents on a yearly basis is, understandably, non-negotiable for the Irish. Given this past week’s developments, however, Notre Dame could now join the conference, play its traditional Big Ten rivals and maintain its rivalry with USC without relinquishing the rare out-of-conference annual opponent spot, reserving one for Navy instead and maintaining both rivalries. It may seem that Notre Dame has at least a half-rivalry with every school in the country, but make no mistake: this potential lineup of traditional opponents should be a major deal for the Irish faithful and national media alike.
Speaking of national media, let’s talk television deals; after all, the other big reason Notre Dame is so reluctant to join the Big Ten (or any conference for that matter) is the lucrative deal it has held with NBC since 1991. The deal, which extends through 2025, is reportedly worth up to $15 million annually. While its exclusivity provided Notre Dame a national brand at the time and its payout is still high, it isn’t higher than the average TV revenue payout for Big Ten members and it won’t even compare to the TV revenue payout likely to come out of the Big Ten’s next media rights contract. The Conference’s current contract with ESPN expires in 2023, and prior to the addition of USC and UCLA, the Big Ten was projected to be the first conference to surpass $1 billion in annual media rights fees. With the two West Coast powers joining and providing substantial leverage for the Conference, we will now witness Apple, Fox, Disney, and other corporate titans battle over a media rights deal likely to eclipse $1.5 billion annually. If each Big Ten school was raking in $25.4 million from the Conference – including $18.9 million in TV revenue – in 2013, we can only imagine the big bucks each member institution will pull in now. We know for sure, however, that it will be greater than $15 million.
Now, given its current non-football ties to Notre Dame, you may ask, ‘What about the ACC?’ The ACC finds itself in a massive media rights contract at the most inopportune time, stuck in its deal with ESPN until 2036. The Big Ten’s next deal will likely dwarf this contract. ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips will likely need to find a way out of this ESPN deal to hold a puncher’s chance at landing Notre Dame as a full-fledged member. This may sound like the ACC is an afterthought in the Notre Dame sweepstakes, but there’s a catch: the ESPN deal includes language that if Notre Dame does choose to join a conference in football prior to 2036, they must join the ACC. The ACC is not only in the conversation for Notre Dame’s future, but also might constrain Notre Dame’s future for the next 14 years. Of course, there is also the possibility that Notre Dame leaves the ACC now, forking over some hefty exit fees and buying out the grant of rights through 2036 for non-football sports. This option essentially takes Jim Phillips out of the equation, and the high potential payout from the Big Ten’s future media contract might outweigh the cost of leaving the ACC.
With its latest additions, the Big Ten has positioned itself as stiff competition for the Southeastern Conference (SEC) from an athletic and monetary standpoint in the realignment arms race, something no other conference has accomplished up to this point. In the process – as I’ve detailed above – the Big Ten has also made itself the ideal suitor for Notre Dame, an institution that the Big Ten regrettably spurned in the early 1900s and has flirted with in the many decades since. Will the Fighting Irish recognize the obvious financial, athletic, and academic fit the Conference provides and part with its tradition of independence? Time will tell, but the ingredients are there for this marriage to finally happen.
Hunter is an incoming 1L at the University of Mississippi School of Law. You can follow him on Twitter @BigHseidler