As we wrap up the long July 4th weekend, one question has moved to the forefront of much speculation about the future of college athletics: Was this Independence Day Notre Dame’s last as an independent?
Since the jarring announcement last week that USC and UCLA are headed to the Big Ten in 2024, all is 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. Maybe sometimes.
After the ground moved again last Thursday, the next consideration has been the other attractive buyout 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.
“Next decision,” said an industry insider Sports Illustrated, “really sticks with Notre Dame.” The same person speculated that the decision could come “a week, six months or a year from now. We don’t know.”
It stands to reason that the Big Ten would always get the object of his undying affection, now or sometime in the nebulous future. It doesn’t matter if Notre Dame was the 17th, 19th or 21st team in the league, the Big Ten would make it work to get the big prize it’s been chasing for so long. So the Irish, as always, can afford to be picky and patient.
A source familiar with the school’s thinking said Sports Illustrated that “independence remains the preference and leader in the club”. It will take a lot to shake Notre Dame out of its beloved identity, but the instability of the entire landscape remains a concern and could further affect the Irish outlook.
Two areas to monitor: the fates of the College Football Playoff and the Atlantic Coast Conference. If either or both collapse, Notre Dame could be forced into the Big Ten. Under his current contract, the playoffs cease to exist in January 2026. There is no guarantee that another iteration of him will take his place, at any size. “The vast majority of writing assumes a playoff and that it’s going to get bigger,” says the industry source. “I’m not sure about that assumption.”
It’s possible the Big 12 and the shrinking Pac-12 could be lifted out. It is possible that the ACC may also be pushed aside. It’s possible for the Big Ten and SEC to each hold their own miniplayoffs, then the champions of the two leagues meet for a presumptive national title — or not, and each conference can declare its supremacy without putting it on the field. (If you want a bad throwback to the crooked bowl system, this would be it.)
Notre Dame wants a path to a national football championship. If all but the Big Ten and SEC are reduced to non-competitive status, that could force them off Independence Island. Or, if the ACC splits amid its long hold on an unfavorable contract with ESPN, the school will have to think about its sports that compete in that league and may need to relocate.
The school of thought on why it might finally be time for Notre Dame to join the Big Ten features two classes: national planning and revenue.
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One of the reasons the Irish have loved their independence is the ability to schedule their own football matches from coast to coast, attracting a national fan base and recruiting philosophy (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 would remain viable every year. So would the East Coast, with Rutgers and Maryland. Plus, there’s 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 being conference brothers. The number of schools that would turn down a chance to schedule Notre Dame will likely remain small no matter what.
In terms of revenue, which has become the dominant talking point for everyone and everything about the realignment, joining the Big Ten would certainly have its advantages. The league’s new media rights contracts will be a flood of cash pouring down on member schools. Many people have theorized that Notre Dame would fall far behind in this regard if it does not join the conference. It may not be so.
But don’t think for a minute that the Irish will let money alone decide whether to abandon what has been a guiding principle since the school rose to national prominence in football more than a century ago. The financial gap between maintaining independent status and joining the Big Ten may be considered manageable by Notre Dame’s administration. This has never been an athletic department operating on a budget the size of Texas or Ohio State, and likely doesn’t feel the need or desire to spend the $200 million or so a year on sports.
That’s at the heart of the identity Notre Dame doesn’t want to give up: It’s a distinct football-academic marketing powerhouse. It is the only school in the country to be ranked in the top 20 of both US News & World Reportnational ranking of universities AND Participation in NCAA football. Notre Dame is 17th in the most recent academic rankings and has ranged between 15th and 17th in home attendance from 2017 to ’21 (excluding ’20, when attendance was a worthless metric in sports of the college during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic).
In numbers that resonate with television executives, Notre Dame ranks eighth in the number of non-bowl/playoff games watched in recent seasons by at least three million people, per Watch Sports Media. The Irish had a total of 16 games with three million or more viewers in 2018, ’19 and ’21 (dropping the ’20 numbers due to the disparity 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 ahead of Notre Dame on the list is a current or future member of the Big Ten or SEC. And the next four behind the Irish are too (Auburn, Wisconsin, Florida and Texas A&M).
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There are other smaller, private, prestigious academic schools that have had success in football, notably Stanford and Northwestern in recent years. But they can’t match the size of Notre Dame’s following—they’re not seating more than 75,000 butts or parking three million of them in front of a screen.
Notre Dame has forever been able to have everything it wanted: academic prestige, football success, enough money to fund more than 20 competitive varsity sports — and the beloved autonomy of FBS independence. He won’t give it up willingly, even in a college sports world rocked by turbulence. The assumption here is that the school maintains its independence for as long as it can, until July 4, 2023 and beyond.
This changes if the current structure only continues to be destabilized in a profound way. Which, hey, could happen. While most college sports are waiting for signs from Notre Dame, the school can afford to wait for signs from everyone else.
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