College football is trending toward the formation of super-conferences, should Notre Dame join up?
There’s no question that Notre Dame remains a member of college football royalty but unfortunately, Queen Elizabeth is probably a more appropriate comparison than Kate Middleton.
Could joining a conference bring the Irish back to the top of college football?
I’d argue that it will do just the opposite.
As an independent, Notre Dame has a few inherent advantages over teams affiliated with a conferences. Over the years, the Irish have utilized these advantages better than any team in college football. Unless there is a major shift in any of these three areas, there’s no reason why Notre Dame can’t flourish as an independent for the foreseeable future.
In recent years, the major conferences have made the smart decision to build conference-wide TV networks. These networks simultaneously bring exposure to the conference while also generating enormous revenues.
Notre Dame figured this out 20 years ago.
Since 1991, NBC has aired all of Notre Dame’s home games. While other big-time schools are regulars on ABC and ESPN, no school has a television deal guaranteeing that all of its home games will be featured on national network television. Though NBC’s ratings for Notre Dame games have been in decline over the past few years, NBC still offers greater distribution potential than any cable network.
When the Irish bounce back into the elite ranks of college football, I’d expect that those ratings will bounce back as well.
Admittedly, the NBC deal does not bring in as much gross revenue as some of the conference networks, but Notre Dame does not have to share the NBC money with any other school. Additionally, the upcoming re-branding of Versus to NBC Sports Network may open the door for even more Notre Dame content to air across NBC's family of networks
The overarching point here is that Notre Dame does not lack television exposure. Joining a conference could bring the Irish in on a lucrative conference television network, but it would likely require the Irish to sacrifice their deal with NBC.
Right now, Notre Dame has greater TV exposure than any other college football team. Joining a conference would only serve to diminish that.
Notre Dame has been recruiting nationally ever since Knute Rockne’s whistle-stop tours back in the 1920s. Part of the reason that the Irish are able to attract players from all over the country is that their schedule allows them to play a game in any top recruit’s backyard, wherever that may be.
Nearly every season, Notre Dame covers not only the Midwest (Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue), but also the Northeast (Navy, Boston College) and the West Coast (Stanford, USC). Sprinkle in occasional match-ups in Florida and Texas, and Notre Dame’s schedule can easily cover all of the nation’s hot beds of high school football.
In recent years, Notre Dame has begun a brilliant campaign of neutral site games at key recruiting locations. Last season, they faced Army at Yankee Stadium. The year before, the Irish took on Washington State in San Antonio. This season, they’ll match up with Maryland at FedEx Field. With their huge national fanbase, Notre Dame generally still has the home crowd advantage in these neutral site games, while also giving out-of-town recruits a chance to see the program up close.
A conference affiliated school with only three or four non-conference games simply does not have the flexibility to manipulate their schedule like this. The big boys play almost all of their non-conference games at home, limiting their exposure to recruits outside of their own home region.
If Notre Dame joined a conference, it’s unlikely that the Irish would be able to recruit nationally like they have in the past.
It’s no secret that Notre Dame has received more than a few bowl invitations that may not have been completely deserved. It’s also no secret why Notre Dame has received these invitations.
As much as we would like to ignore it, college football is all about the money. For bowls, the money means attracting fans to the game and delivering a big ratings.
There is no school better at putting butts in the seats and eyeballs on the screen than Notre Dame. Last season, the Irish delivered a sellout crowd and a strong TV rating to the Sun Bowl, even though the team only had a 7-5 record going into the game.
For teams, the money means getting to the most prestigious bowl possible.
As of the latest renewal of the BCS contract, Notre Dame is guaranteed a bid to a BCS bowl if it finishes in the top eight in the final BCS rankings. Additionally, Notre Dame keeps all of the revenue it earns from any bowl invitation, whereas conference affiliated teams must split it with the other teams in their conference. No other school has such an exception.
In fact, the addition of championship games for many of the major conferences has only added another hurdle for teams trying to reach a BCS game.
The simple truth is that unless Notre Dame’s exception goes away or the the structure of the BCS is radically changed, joining a conference would only make it tougher for the Irish to secure a bid to a big-time bowl.
All in all, staying independent gives Notre Dame the best chance get to a BCS National Championship.