Big Ten expansion news continues to fire out at a rapid pace, which means that there isn’t any rest for me other than watching the latest episode of LOST and wondering if Bruce Weber was giving Demetri McCamey a lesson on the Bolshevik Revolution this past Sunday. (OT rant – Joe Lunardi, why are you fucking with my head on the Illini? What the hell do you see in us? Does the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee secretly like teams with RPIs in the 70s that go down by double-digit deficits in the first half, mount furious comebacks within the last 10 minutes of the game, and then commit insane fouls like tackling opposing players to blow any chance of winning? You’re telling me that I actually still need to care this week during the Big Ten Tournament and Selection Sunday? Damn it all to hell. /OT rant) Everytime that I think this story is going to slow down until the summer, something pops up that throws everyone for a loop. The surprise this week is that the latest expansion tidbits are coming from the almighty University of Notre Dame itself. Irish Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick basically said that Notre Dame’s hand could be effectively forced to give up independence in the event of a “seismic” shift in the college sports landscape.
Just as I wondered what purpose the Big Ten had in leaking its study of 5 different expansion candidates last week (including Notre Dame), I’m perplexed as to why Swarbrick started spouting his mouth about whether Notre Dame would end up joining a conference. Up until today, there seemed to be a media consensus that Notre Dame was a “pipe dream” for the Big Ten (which I never really believed, but that was the perception), so it wasn’t as if though he was trying to bat down any specific rumors. Maybe Notre Dame was just testing the waters with its own alumni base to see how they’d react? (I already know the answer to this: it is vitriolic anger and they’d rather drop to football program entirely than dare join a conference.) Perhaps the Irish were getting a little tired of hearing how great Rutgers would be in the Big Ten or that Texas would actually be way better for the Big Ten than the Domers ever could be? Or could Swarbrick and Notre Dame’s administration be seeing the proverbial writing on the wall where conference membership will become a necessity in terms of having a financially viable athletic department and they’re preparing their alums for an unpopular decision down the road?
I really don’t think that Swarbrick is really saying anything that contradicts with what he’s stated before. As I noted in point #2 in this post, he’s a shrewd attorney skilled at wordsmithing and there isn’t a single comment that he’s uttered over the past several months that would be considered to be a lie if Notre Dame joined the Big Ten tomorrow. What’s a little more unusual in Swarbrick’s latest comments is that he stepped out with an affirmative acknowledgement that Notre Dame could indeed consider conference membership under the right circumstances. Of course, everyone wants to know what those circumstances would be.
I’m not going to presume anything about Notre Dame. As much as the Irish are criticized as being selfish, they have actually been willing to leave money on the table in order to preserve certain traditions. Notre Dame doesn’t play games in South Bend in prime time even though NBC would love to see that happen, there isn’t any advertising in Notre Dame Stadium and its NBC contract is worth a lot less today than the Big Ten’s TV deals. In contrast, Texas became the #1 revenue generating sports school in the country because it squeezes every penny out of its athletic department. The Longhorns have every home football game sponsored by a major corporation (i.e. “Texas vs. Louisiana-Monroe is presented by JetBlue Airlines”) along with an electronic scoreboard that would make Jerry Jones proud. It’s difficult for me to see Texas leaving any money on the table, which is why I’ve scoffed at the notion that an extra $10 million or more doesn’t mean anything to that school. That’s not a criticism at all. They’re just acting rationally in their economic self-interest in the same manner that almost every other school in the country would.
So, I fully acknowledge that Notre Dame is different from everyone else. If you’ve been fortunate enough to attend a game in South Bend as I have (courtesy of Sully), it’s one of the most amazing settings that you’ll ever come across in sports. The school’s self-image is intertwined with independence going back to the days when there was a horrible anti-Catholic sentiment across much of the country in the early 1900s, including within the Big Ten (who wouldn’t allow Notre Dame to join on those religious grounds). Notre Dame became the team for Catholics across the country even if they didn’t have any direct connection to the school itself (AKA the Subway Alumni), which provided it a unique national fan base that has reinforced its independent nature. That being said, it has been easy for Notre Dame to claim an adherence to independence over the past few decades when it was in its financial interests to do so. When Notre Dame rejected an invitation from the Big Ten back in the 1990s, the Irish were making about twice as much TV money as every Big Ten school. As of today, though, the positions are reversed. I noted in the Big Ten Expansion Index post that Notre Dame is now #3 in TV money… in its own home state behind Purdue and Indiana. Independence isn’t quite the no-brainer choice for Notre Dame that it used to be from the financial side of the ledger.
Here’s the other thing to consider and which I’ve alluded to before: whether the school wants to admit it or not, Notre Dame has the freedom to be independent only as long as it believes that it can join the Big Ten whenever it wants. The Irish can proceed with independence with very little risk if the worst case scenario is having to join the Big Ten, which is the best case scenario from a financial standpoint for virtually every other school in the country. When talk about Big Ten expansion centered on Rutgers and Missouri, that certainly didn’t give Notre Dame any pause at all. Even if the Big Ten added Rutgers or Mizzou as school #12, Notre Dame could be confident that they could be added in a larger Big Ten if the Irish ever needed to join a conference 20 or 30 years down the road. When Texas and Texas A&M entered the discussion, though, then that completely changed the story. If the Big Ten added the Texas schools plus one other random school (i.e. Rutgers, Missouri, Alaska-Anchorage, Toronto, Little Sisters of the Poor, etc.) for a 14-school conference, that’s a scenario where Big Ten membership could very well be closed off to Notre Dame forever. The Big Ten legitimately doesn’t need or even want Notre Dame if it adds a school like Texas. That turns Notre Dame’s current worst case scenario from joining the Big Ten, with all of its academic and financial advantages, into having to join the Big East in all likelihood, whose ENTIRE football TV contract last year was worth $13 million to be split amongst 8 schools (compared to $22 million for every single Big Ten school). Thus, Notre Dame faces a real risk of being completely screwed in the long-term if it passes up an invitation to the Big Ten in this round of conference realignment, which is something that it hasn’t faced before.
This leads to the key question: what change on the college sports landscape would be “seismic” enough to get Notre Dame to join a conference? Swarbrick mentioned the notion of 16-school superconferences, although I have a hard time believing that those will come to fruition in the near future. However, I would certainly consider the Big Ten adding Texas and Texas A&M to be a massive seismic shift in college sports. Could Notre Dame seriously let someone else take the 14th spot in the Big Ten if that were to happen? That would certainly satisfy the Irish need for a national schedule. If the Big Ten couldn’t get the Texas schools, would simply adding 2 Big East schools be enough? The scenario that I described as “JoePa’s Dream Conference” where the Big Ten would add Notre Dame, Rutgers and Syracuse could also represent a seismic shift. That would effectively kill off the Big East while creating a massive East Coast presence for the Big Ten. As much as Notre Dame might claim to not care about basketball and its non-revenue sports, I think that it still cares that those athletes are participating in a BCS power conference. I have a feeling that the Atlantic-10 or even a league made up only of the Catholic members of the Big East wouldn’t suffice for Notre Dame if the Big East split apart. Regardless, Notre Dame’s administration is starting to realize that it might not be an island that is immune to the greater market forces around them. The alumni can continue to take a hardline stance regarding independence based on tradition and emotion, but Notre Dame’s leadership is going to be facing some extremely tough choices in the new economic paradigm in college sports.
Remember what I said at the end of my post on the Big Ten study that was leaked: “If the Big Ten doesn’t add Notre Dame, then it’s going to go after a school that’s even better (not secondary choices that are lower in terms of impact). Call me naive, crazy or one-track minded, but money has a way of making ‘pipe dreams’ on paper in sports fan terms become much more realistic.” Jack Swarbrick just confirmed that at least one “pipe dream” might not be that far from becoming a reality.
(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111)
(Image from ESPN.com)