Let’s give credit to Notre Dame where it is due: When it comes to deal-making no one does it better than the Irish.
When Notre Dame and the Atlantic Coast Conference announced their new partnership last Wednesday, there wasn’t a shred of doubt who got the better end of the deal: The ACC gets Notre Dame football — sort of, kind of, but not really. Notre Dame gets the stability it needs going forward in all other sports, most notably basketball, and gives up nothing — repeat nothing — financially in return.
This was the college athletics version of Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas or Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio. Notre Dame got Robinson and Brock — both Hall of Famers — and the ACC got Pappas and Broglio.
Of course the ACC isn’t spinning it that way. Even though Notre Dame will play only five conference teams a season — which, for the record, is one more than it will play this season if you count incoming member Pittsburgh as an ACC team — one might think the ACC had just gone from a mediocre football conference to a top-drawer football conference. Guess what? The ACC just went from being a mediocre football conference to being a mediocre football conference — with a tad more glamour attached.
There is no arguing that Notre Dame is still one of the names in college football. You can talk all you want about Notre Dame’s fall from football grace in the last 20 years: the 2-10 record in bowl games since 1994; the irrelevance on the national stage since 1993. It’s all true and yet, Notre Dame is still as big a TV draw as there is and undoubtedly has more rabid fans who are not alumni than any school in the country.
Notre Dame hasn’t hung on to football independence because of scheduling, it has hung on to it because of money. And that is the crux of this deal.
Notre Dame would never commit to a full slate of nine ACC games a season because that would make it very difficult to schedule the seven games that are part of its NBC TV deal each year. How much of the NBC deal does the ACC get? Zero. If Notre Dame is invited to a Bowl Championship Series bowl game — or beginning in 2014 to one of the new playoff games — the ACC gets exactly the same percentage of the money as it gets from the NBC deal: zero.
Will the ACC’s deal with ESPN be improved by Notre Dame’s presence? Slightly. Notre Dame already appears once or twice per year on ESPN’s ACC package. Now it will appear twice or three times. You can also bet that in most years that Notre Dame is scheduled to play three ACC road games, one of those games will be moved to an NFL stadium and, even though it will technically be the ACC school’s home game, much of the crowd will be wearing green and gold.
In short, Notre Dame gives up nothing in football and is guaranteed to be part of the ACC’s bowl package in years that it doesn’t reach the playoffs or a BCS game. With the Big East in disarray, thanks in large part to the ACC constantly raiding it for teams (Notre Dame now makes six: Miami, Virginia Tech, Boston College, Syracuse and Pittsburgh previously) Notre Dame will b e part of a stable bowl package without having to commit to a full schedule.
Additionally, the way the deal is written, an ACC team will need two more wins than Notre Dame to not get leap-frogged by the Irish in the bowl pecking order. In other words, if Maryland and Virginia finish 9-3 in a given season and Notre Dame is 8-4 and it is the Gator Bowl’s turn to pick the No. 3 ACC team, it can — and will — pick the Irish. One more bonus for Notre Dame: If and when it does return to national prominence, it won’t have to deal with playing in a conference championship game against a quality opponent in order to wrap up a playoff spot or a BCS bid.
The Big East has been the best and deepest basketball conference in the country in recent years. But with Syracuse, Pitt and now Notre Dame moving to the ACC; Connecticut in flux with the retirement of Jim Calhoun; and schools such as Houston, SMU and Central Florida replacing the departing schools, the profiles of the two conferences have changed considerably.
One can bet that Notre Dame basketball Coach Mike Brey will have a considerably easier time selling recruits on playing games against North Carolina and Duke than on games against SMU and UCF. What’s more, it is entirely possible that the Big East hybrid, which will eventually include football-only members Boise State, San Diego State and Navy, won’t survive.
The simple fact of it all is this: The ACC was so desperate to improve its football profile in any way possible that it accepted Notre Dame’s ludicrous terms just so it could claim to now have a relationship with the marketing and TV monolith that is Notre Dame football. The real football conferences: Southeastern Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific-12 would never have taken Notre Dame under these terms. As bad as the Big Ten appears to be this year, it is still the Big Ten.
So let’s all cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame. The Irish climaxed their week with a win at No. 10 Michigan State to go to 3-0 for the first time since 2002. They still have the best fight song out there and much of the world still buys into the myth that the school is somehow different than all the other money-chasing big-time football schools.
In the meantime, Notre Dame laughs all the way to the bank. Cheer, cheer indeed.