The biggest brand in all of sports took another step, albeit a baby one, towards conference membership earlier today with its agreement to join the ACC in all sports except football.
Notre Dame essentially jumped a sinking ship in the Big East in what is being hailed almost universally as a great move for Notre Dame athletics.
And a great move it is.
By leaving the Big East, who were looking to close on a television deal in the near future, hanging out to dry, the Irish have given the non-revenue sports—as they are called, like lacrosse, soccer and tennis—a more competitive environment and an easier travel schedule. They've managed to do all of this while maintaining the precious independent label that allows them to rake in cash and not have to share it with anybody. This is where Notre Dame differs from every university athletic program in the nation. Only they could pull this off.
While other big programs share in revenue, Notre Dame's is able to retain its freedom in scheduling as well as the massive television contract with NBC that runs through 2015. No other school in the nation with a similar profile to Notre Dame's would have been allowed to join a conference in all sports except football.
Other programs are expected to live within a standard protocol and if they don't like it, they don't have to switch conferences. Notre Dame lives by its own standard, though. So much so that getting the Irish football program to agree to play five ACC teams per year and every team within a three-year period is considered a victory for the ACC, despite the fact that Notre Dame already plays three current and one future ACC team regularly.
Notre Dame is allowed this because they are a national brand. Leave the Midwest in a Minnesota Gophers hat, and you may get recognized by a couple alumni. Leave the Midwest, heck leave the country in a Notre Dame hat, and you'll hear shouts of "Go Irish!" from all directions. Everybody knows Notre Dame football, and that's what makes them so desirable. It's why the Big Ten has been hounding athletic director Jack Swarbrick for years, and it's why they have that big NBC contract. It's also why the Irish will forever be NCAA royalty.
There are three ways to get Notre Dame to join a conference. The first is to allow them to disengage from conference revenue sharing and keep all the trappings they have now, excluding of course, the freedom of scheduling, to a degree. The second is to create 16-team super conferences that funnel into a playoff, and force their hand. The third is to shut Notre Dame athletics out; create an NCAA in which all the athletics must join a conference, or none of them can. Make it so that the entire athletic department hurts. High profile teams would have to decline games against Notre Dame, relegating them to playing continual patsies until they can no longer remain relevant without joining a conference. In essence, place an Irish Embargo and bring them to their knees.
Of course, the first plan is out of the question, because to allow Notre Dame the freedom of conference membership without restriction is to open Pandora's box as teams like Michigan, Texas, USC and Florida will demand the same. The third plan will never materialize because of the national brand Notre Dame has. Fans recognize the famous letters, playing Notre Dame is always a huge money-maker and schools aren't about to pass on a huge payday for the greater good of a conference system that is on its way out. The second plan is the most likely to work. Conferences are already moving in the direction with the SEC having 14 teams, the Big Ten having 12 and the Pac-10 now becoming the Pac-12. Now the ACC has 14-and-a-half teams in football. Change is coming, and sooner or later, that half membership might have to become a full one for Notre Dame. But for the next five to 10 years, they can bask in their (semi) independence.
Earlier today, ESPN posted the story "ACC accepts Notre Dame." Nothing could be further from the truth. Notre Dame accepted the ACC. Until something changes, the powers that be all kneel before the Blue and Gold throne. It's Notre Dame's world, the rest of us are just playing football in it.