There has been one phrase that I’ve repeated many times on this blog over the past two years because so many college football fans continuously refuse to believe it: the ACC is much stronger than what people give them credit for. I don’t say that as someone that is even a fan of the ACC at all (as it would bring me great personal joy to see Duke get relegated to the Southern Conference), but rather as an observer that when the academic leaders that ultimately make conference realignment decisions have a legitimate choice, they would vastly prefer being in an academically prestigious conference. That is something that the ACC has always had in its favor (notwithstanding the hypocrisy of fake grades) and is a powerful counter to the lure a even a few million more dollars per year that could theoretically be obtained in other conferences. This has culminated in the ACC grabbing the most powerful brand name in college sports (albeit on a partial basis): Notre Dame.
It doesn’t surprise me one bit that Notre Dame would bolt the Big East for the ACC as a non-football member. From the Irish perspective, the ACC looks more like the Big East that the Domers originally joined in the 1990s (which had Miami, Boston College, Virginia Tech, Pitt and Syracuse at the time) than the Big East does itself today. With the Big East getting shut out of the top level of conferences in the new college football postseason structure, the ACC provides “power conference” membership for Notre Dame’s basketball program and non-football sports without actually having to join a power conference for football. Notre Dame is an institutional fit with many of the ACC schools as an elite private university, as well (which always played into the Domer bias against the Big Ten as a league that is made up of massive public schools with the exception of Northwestern). The stipulation that Notre Dame play 5 ACC football games per year might not be optimal for the Irish, but it’s certainly doable since the ACC provides such a large slate that the Domers have chosen to play on their own, anyway. Boston College and Pitt have long been almost annual Notre Dame opponents, while Miami, Syracuse, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Wake Forest and Florida State are all schools that the Irish have scheduled recently. The ACC also allows Notre Dame to continue playing schools on the East Coast where much of its alumni base is located (which was a major detraction from the Big 12’s own non-football membership offer to the school). On virtually every level (institutional fit, maintaining football independence, a football scheduling arrangement that they could live with, East Coast exposure, competitive basketball and Olympic sports), this was the best situation that Notre Dame could have received.
(From a purely personal standpoint, I want to see Illinois and Notre Dame play a Big Ten/ACC Challenge game annually at the United Center. The Illini have been looking for better opponents for its annual Chicago game while the Irish are now going to need a presence in that market since it won’t be playing DePaul anymore.)
What surprises me is that the ACC offered this deal to Notre Dame in the first place. ACC commissioner John Swofford has long taken the position that the league should only be made up of all-sports members along with members such as UNC that believe that they are every bit as powerful on the college sports landscape as Texas, Michigan and USC, so it can’t be emphasized enough that this is a dramatic change. Unlike the perception in much of the media that this move was “Notre Dame choosing the ACC”, the reality is that this was the ACC choosing to move off of a previously intractable position. The ACC might have been spooked by the constant rumors that the Big 12 would poach schools such as Florida State or Clemson (along with adding Notre Dame as a non-football member itself) as a result of the Big 12’s new TV deal. On that front, the ACC schools agreed to what will likely be an impenetrable wall of a $50 million exit fee for each school. That is honestly an even bigger deal in the long-term than the Notre Dame move since it effectively the ACC from its football cash cows bolting to other conferences.
What effect does this have on conference realignment? At least when it comes to the “Big Five” power conferences, I believe that it stops it in its tracks. Notre Dame and Texas are the two schools that have the ability to create dramatic shifts toward 16-team superconferences on their own, but both of them look to be settled for the foreseeable future. The ACC itself has no need to expand further either on the football front or in a non-football manner. 15 members for basketball and Olympic sports don’t cause any material issue for scheduling and Notre Dame has always been the only school that the ACC would have ever offered partial membership to. Therefore, Big East Catholic schools such as Georgetown and Villanova aren’t going to find a lifeline in the ACC. Notre Dame also doesn’t impact the football side at all, so there is no need to expand beyond 14 there, which means that Big East schools such as Rutgers and UConn aren’t going to find a lifeline in the ACC, either.
The SEC and Pac-12 have always been the two leagues where Notre Dame’s potential movement would have the least amount of impact, so the ACC move doesn’t really require a reaction from either of them. In the case of the Big Ten, it likely doesn’t change their thinking, either. If the Big Ten wanted to expand to 14 or 16 without Notre Dame (and I never believed that they did unless Texas was coming along instead), then it would have occurred two years ago concurrently with the move to add Nebraska. A school such as Rutgers is going to have to build a substantial resume both on-the-field (in terms of competing for top tier bowls) and off-the-field (in terms of actually delivering its home market for TV purposes) in order for the Big Ten to take any interest. At this point, the Big Ten isn’t taking any “project” schools – it only wants elite programs with top-level financial underpinnings from the get-go and there aren’t any out there outside of the Big Five.
The Big 12 has an interesting dilemma as to whether they stay at 10 or expand to 12. Now that it’s clear that the Big 12 isn’t going to be taking any ACC schools (which should have been obvious to the rationally-minded among us a long time ago), many conference realignment observers (including me) believe that Louisville is next on the list for the Big 12. The problem for Louisville, though, is that there continues to be a lack of consensus around who would be school #12 and the Cardinals simply aren’t enough of a brand name to justify a league going to and stopping at 11 schools in the way that the Big Ten did with Penn State. I’m sure that all of the Big East schools that the Big 12 could conceivably add (Louisville, Rutgers, Cincinnati, UConn, USF) are burning up the phone lines to Bob Bowlsby’s office, but I don’t see the Big 12 biting. My personal view has long been that BYU paired with Louisville would be the best viable Big 12 expansion opportunity out there, but (1) that may not add enough revenue to justify expansion and (2) even if it would be revenue beneficial, BYU’s independence and demand for certain TV rights for BYUtv can get in the way. As a result, I think the Big 12 is going to stay put for awhile.
The upshot is that despite the general storyline that the Big East is reeling once again, the actual impact of Notre Dame leaving the conference isn’t necessarily going to be that great. Any major impact to the Big East would come in form of collateral damage of all-sports members such as Louisville and Rutgers leaving, which appears to be unlikely at this point. Now, that’s not the say that the Big East should be happy about anything that has gone down today. From a perception standpoint, Notre Dame was the last link that the Big East had to the college sports power table, which is now gone. Notre Dame was also the main back channel that the Big East had to communicate with NBC/Comcast, who is widely speculated to be interested in the league’s new TV contract. The Big East isn’t going to receive as reliable information on that front, which comes at an inopportune time with the conference’s exclusive negotiation period with ESPN now in effect.
Meanwhile, new Big East commissioner Mike Aresco faces the question of whether the league should replace Notre Dame with another non-football member, a full all-sports member, or no one at all. Regardless of the Notre Dame situation, the Big East needs to find a 14th member for football. However, that 14th member likely needs to come from the West, which precludes an all-sports invite to that school. (My money is on Air Force eventually coming around as a football-only member with rival Navy already in the fold. The leadership at the BYU, AKA the leaders of the LDS, is too infatuated with independence right now.) If the Big East adds a non-football replacement, I’d put St. Louis University high on the list as a large market urban Catholic school that already has a long history with several of the Big East’s legacy Conference USA members. Butler is also a great option on paper (although not quite the institutional fit that SLU presents). That could result in some further shifting around in the Atlantic 10 and the midmajor conferences below it. As a result, Notre Dame’s move to the ACC is more likely to trigger conference realignment aftershocks in the non-power conferences that don’t even play FBS football than any movement within the Big Five.
Speaking of which, one question that I have seen from a lot of people today is whether the Big East Catholic schools will split off and form their own league as a result of the Notre Dame defection. I don’t see that happening with the irony being that with each defection from the Big East that is in part because it is an unstable hybrid conference, the remaining members end up needing the hybrid more than ever. The Big East Catholic schools might end up finally leaving if Louisville and UConn find other homes, but until that happens, the Big East is still a superior basketball league compared to a split Catholic-only conference. Now, maybe the Big East Catholic members believe that they can control their own destinies better by forming their own league, which is certainly a consideration. That would certainly cause complete chaos among the midmajor conferences as much of the Atlantic 10 would definitely position themselves to get into the new Catholic league, which would then result in a massive chain realignment reaction. As a pure financial decision, though, a hybrid Big East is still worth more to all of its current members than what they would have in a split situation.
The ultimate bottom line is that the ACC raided the Big East and Notre Dame got exactly what it wanted. Something tells me that we have already heard that story several times before.
(Image from Rankontur)