Since 1991, Notre Dame has enjoyed one of the most lucrative television deals in college sports: NBC airs a national live broadcast of every home football game. On Sept. 13, a press release issued on UND.com stated that the NBC deal has generated $100 million in financial aid for students. This headline is refreshing when you consider other universities’ allocation of funds: In essentially a reverse move, the University of New Hampshire put a quarter of their longtime campus librarian’s $4 million posthumous donation towards a new football scoreboard. Programs at schools like UNH sap money, while ND football’s cup runneth over.
$100 million is a lot of money, and if you’re like me, it may make you consider writing NBC a thank you note. But here’s the kicker: Notre Dame actually receives less in TV revenue annually than most Power 5 conference schools. Yes, ND is actually losing out on revenue every year by holding its football team out of the ACC.
These TV revenue numbers, though, do little to explain the true nature of the asset Notre Dame has in the TV deal. Widespread and unparalleled national exposure. Name recognition, which results in a steady stream of prospective students from around the world. (It’s no secret that application numbers surge in years that the football team is especially successful.) A mystique; an aurora of tradition, success and exclusivity. These unquantifiable benefits have been largely earned with NBC’s help, as people across the country can tune in to even the most lopsided ND football matchup every week.
What makes it all work, though, are the scheduling luxuries afforded by ND’s independent status. Instead of being shackled to one particular region for the majority of games every season, ND is free to roam about the country all season long. Granted, the Irish play five ACC games a year, and have always had a pseudo-conference regular schedule (perennial matchups against USC, Michigan, Michigan State and Navy). But they can supplement these games with exciting matchups virtually anywhere. Their Shamrock Series game offers them a home crowd in various stadiums across the country. Outrageously, they even played a 2014 home game in Boston against Boston College. Ticket prices surge when the Irish are in town, and an undeniable buzz follows the team everywhere. Coach Kelly gets a chance to bring his team to recruiting hotbeds like Texas and Ohio, right in top prospects’ backyards.
Is this unfair to other major football programs? Yes, without a doubt. The current iteration of the NBC deal lasts through 2025, but if ND were to join a conference, its fate from there would be uncertain. With this summer’s announcement of an ESPN-owned ACC network launching in 2019, some experts predict Notre Dame football’s imminent absorption into the ACC.
With the recent restructuring of the college football postseason from the BCS to the College Football Playoff, a small contingent of ND fans and a large contingient of opposing coaches have clamored for the Irish to join a Power 5 conference. Some coaches even think independents shouldn’t be considered for the playoff.
But there is a convincing argument from some ND fans, too: If a oneloss Irish team is competing with a one-loss conference champion for a playoff spot, the other team will likely get the nod. Preference for playoff bids are given to conference champions, and ND doesn’t have a conference to win.
This is a scary scenario, and one that may very well occur in the next few years barring an expansion to an eight-team playoff system. Granted, our team isn’t threatening to make the playoffs this year, but it’s certainly something to keep in mind moving forward. A playoff snub will almost assuredly create many more pro-conference ND fans.
But we can’t let this happen. A decades-long precedent of independence must stand. Should we join a conference, our NBC deal would likely end soon after. The dominoes would fall from there. ND’s nationwide draw would certainly diminish, and we’d just be a little Catholic school in the Midwest with an okay football team.
If an undefeated season is all that will get us to the playoff, so be it. We’ll just have to get good. In the meantime, we should reap the benefits of nationwide exposure like we always have, and ride this train as far as it’ll go.
The views of this author are not necessarily the views of Scholastic magazine.