The Last of Us: Notre Dame’s Looming Alignment Decision
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Texas and Oklahoma are bolting for the greener pastures that is the SEC. Obviously, this realignment will have a massive effect on the college landscape, for both major and minor sports alike. However, a curious thought came up as I pictured Texas and Oklahoma leaving a collapsing Big 12 conference. Where do other national brands go? And who on Earth is going to compete with the SEC, especially in football?
In addition to snagging Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12 (albeit for hefty buyout fees for each program), Ohio State, Clemson, and Michigan are other massive programs rumored to be in the running to assimilate into the SEC. While pundits and journalists have been reporting that these schools are being courted, the sports media sphere has been surprisingly silent on the position that this puts Notre Dame in. Do they make the jump and go to the ACC including football? Do they try to break off and join the SEC and follow the other football powerhouse, Clemson? Do they remain independent?
We know the details surrounding Oklahoma and Texas leaving the Big 12, what that move will cost each program, and the massive potential for gain that each program has by joining the SEC. However, what would Notre Dame stand to lose by pulling out of their NBC contract? Would it be beneficial to make the jump and finally join a football conference?
As it stands, Notre Dame’s contract with NBC was renewed in 2016 and terminates in 2025, worth roughly around $15 million annually for football. The current contracts terms were not announced, but NBC has at least retained these television rights to Notre Dame football since 1991. The confidentiality of the contractual terms lends some uncertainty to this proposition, for example, the buyout provision to end the agreement early could be so high that it doesn’t make fiscal sense for Notre Dame to join a football conference and forego its remaining independence. Regardless, that’s an incredibly fruitful agreement for both one of the main broadcast companies in media, and a team who (like it or not) is still viewed by some as college football royalty. Pulling out of the contract would also have ramifications in the scholastic realm for Notre Dame too. The University uses revenue from the contract to fund various scholarships and fellowships, both for undergraduate and graduate schooling.
While Texas has its own TV network, the Longhorn Network, both that network and the SEC network are both owned and operated by ESPN, so this presents a slightly different situation for Notre Dame should they try to jump to a conference, while still maintaining the NBC contract. However, squaring the NBC agreement with the ACC Network agreement would prove quite challenging. Notre Dame does stand to make a substantial amount of money from joining a conference though. For example, in 2019, ACC schools reportedly received an average of $29.5 million based on the total revenue; however, Notre Dame reportedly received only $7.9 million of the $465 million in revenue that the ACC made. To note, that number was seemingly the lowest revenue number of the Power 5 conferences.
Ultimately, it seems like it will come down to how much the “independent” title is worth to Notre Dame football, and the university. Everyone has a price in theory, right? It will be interesting to see what Notre Dame’s is, when they are inevitably faced with a decision on which conference to align with for football.
Another exciting wrinkle in this situation is today’s development that the Big 12 has sent a cease-and-desist letter to ESPN, which consists of demanding ESPN end “all actions that may harm the conference and its members and that it not communicate with the Big 12 Conference’s existing members . . .”. Since Notre Dame is independent, it would seem to be likely for pushback to come from NBC itself, but it still nevertheless creates an interesting scenario should Notre Dame start to look for a conference home for its football program before the contract runs out.
Daniel A. Goldstein is a practicing attorney at Carnes Warwick PLLC in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is a graduate of Campbell University's School of Law, and obtained his undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill. He has written on sports law-related issues for the North Carolina Bar Association's Intellectual Property blog. You can follow him on Twitter @dgunc3 and on Instagram @dangoldstein3.