Benner/Sports and Notre Dame and Sports Business

BENNER: Notre Dame appears to score with ACC arrangement

September 22, 2012

In my dream world of intercollegiate athletics, I always envisioned Notre Dame—some how, some way, some day—joining the Big Ten.

It just seemed so darned logical.

Alas, it is not going to happen. Not today, not tomorrow, not likely ever. Notre Dame has bailed on the Big East and is bound for the Atlantic Coast Conference as soon as a buyout can be negotiated.

Notre Dame ended up with the best of both worlds. It gets to maintain its prized independence in football and the NBC television contract that goes along with that independence.

It gets to shore up its football schedule with the guarantee of playing five ACC opponents every year.

It gets access to the Bowl Championship Series’ impending four-team playoff. In those years when it is not BCS-worthy—which would be most of them—it can be assigned to one of the ACC’s bowl tie-ins.

And, finally, it gets to shift all its other sports (except hockey) to the ACC—most notably, men’s basketball, where the Fighting Irish now become part of a league that includes traditional powers such as the University of North Carolina and Duke University, but also fellow erstwhile Big East members Syracuse and Pittsburgh.

If there are any negatives for Notre Dame in all this, danged if I can find them. Jack Swarbrick, the former Indianapolis attorney who became Notre Dame’s director of athletics four years ago, hasn’t hit merely a home run, but a grand slam.

As for the ACC, well, we’ll see.

The ACC did what the Big Ten never would have done: allow the Irish to come in without a full-time membership in football. To that I say, bully for the Big Ten, and congrats to the ACC and its commissioner, John Swofford, for recognizing the chance to enact a deal that is unique and ingenious.

Furthermore, the ACC appears to have recaptured the high ground of Eastern-based basketball from the Big East. It wasn’t long ago that the ACC looked somewhat vulnerable. No longer, with Syracuse, Pitt and now Notre Dame becoming stops along Tobacco Road.

Make no mistake, not many are regretting that the Big Ten didn’t persuade Notre Dame to become a member. With the University of Nebraska in the fold and the Big Ten Network delivering truckloads of cash, the Big Ten didn’t need Notre Dame.

And Notre Dame—even without its football program as a national power (and we’ll see how the remainder of this season goes)—didn’t need the Big Ten. Whatever anyone wants to say about the Irish’s diminished status, the program still fills seats and delivers eyeballs to television sets.

A couple of questions remain.

One, does the commitment to five ACC games jeopardize Notre Dame’s long-standing (since 1946) series with Purdue University? Boilermaker Athletic Director Morgan Burke was quoted as saying it does not—at least not the current commitment through 2021. Let’s hope that’s the case.

Additionally, Notre Dame says it is committed to keep playing Southern California, Stanford and Navy. So where does that leave Purdue, as well as Michigan and Michigan State? Perhaps still on the schedule, just not every season.

“It’s obvious we won’t be able to maintain every rivalry every year,” Swarbrick has said.

Second, will this “kind-of” football arrangement with the ACC eventually lead to full-fledged participation in the league and eventual abandonment of football independence? My guess is, highly doubtful, unless NBC would at some point determine that Notre Dame is no longer worthy of its own contract. The current agreement, estimated to be worth $15 million annually, expires in 2015. The ACC’s current contract for ACC football rights brings league teams about $13 million annually. So why would Notre Dame bring its football into the ACC at a loss? Answer: It wouldn’t.

And for those wondering, Notre Dame football is as relevant as ever.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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