As I discussed in my article last week, The ACC has been left in an awkward spot in college’s conference realignment. The ACC has not lost or gained any members, largely because of its media rights deal and Grant of Rights Agreement with ESPN that runs through 2036. While the future of The ACC is very much up in the air, there is one thing that that would almost certainly ensure that the future of The ACC is safe: that would be Notre Dame ending its status as independent and joining The ACC for football.
Is Independence Sustainable?
Notre Dame has always been an independent college football program, meaning they are not a part of a conference for football and there are multiple reasons for this. To start, Notre Dame is one of the biggest brands and has one of the most loyal followings in the sport. Notre Dame is a school of tradition, and being independent is one of the things that Notre Dame and its fans have always prided themselves on. However, as much as Notre Dame likes to think independence is unique to them, there are currently six other college football teams that are independent; BYU, Army, Liberty, UMass, UConn, and New Mexico State.
The only independent school that is comparable to Notre Dame is BYU. BYU is another national brand that is full of rich tradition and pride, but it has decided to put its independent status aside to join The Big 12 as a part of the conference realignment, starting in 2023.
Notre Dame has been able to sustain itself as an independent program mainly because of an exclusive media rights deal that it has had with NBC since 1991. In Notre Dame’s current deal, NBC is currently paying them about $22M this year; however, that deal is set to expire in 2025. The expiration date is very convenient for Notre Dame, because that timing is right in the middle of the rest of the conference realignment chaos.
This timing could give Notre Dame options. It can extend its media rights deal with NBC and remain independent, or it can join a conference. Getting a huge brand like Notre Dame is a no brainer for a conference and any conference’s members would surely approve of Notre Dame’s revenue being brought into the conference. The Big Ten and The ACC have been the two conferences that have always been in the conversation if Notre Dame were to consider this route.
Notre Dame and The ACC’s Weird Relationship
The ACC and Notre Dame have had a relationship for quite some time now, so it has always seemed like the most likely destination if Notre Dame were to join a conference. In 2013, Notre Dame officially joined The ACC for every sport besides football and hockey. Notre Dame’s Athletic Director, Jack Swarbrick, said that Notre Dame chose The ACC because the other member schools were similar academically and The ACC consists of a lot of private schools, like Notre Dame. As a part of this agreement with The ACC, Notre Dame is somewhat of a “part-time” ACC member for football, where they generally play five ACC teams a year, and will continue to through 2036 when The ACC’s media rights deal and Grant of Rights Agreement expire.
Additionally, when the pandemic hit, Notre Dame had no choice but to join a conference if it wanted to play football for the 2020-2021 season. The natural fit, and the only real option because of The ACC’s Grant of Rights Agreement, was to join The ACC for one year. This one-year relationship with The ACC turned out to be beneficial for both The ACC and Notre Dame. During the 2020-2021 season, The ACC’s revenue was up 16% and they saw a 20% increase in TV revenue, proving that Notre Dame is a huge asset to any conference. Notre Dame’s share of this was about $36M, which is around $14M more than it would have gotten if it had played out its normal independent schedule with NBC.
Naturally, as this proved to be a mutually beneficial relationship, The ACC Commissioner, Jim Phillips, pressed hard to make this a full-time relationship. As appealing as this is for The ACC, their long media rights deal and Grant of Rights Agreement does not make it appealing to Notre Dame at all.
This Grant of Rights Agreement is not only holding all of The ACC’s current members hostage, but it also is holding Notre Dame hostage, making its decision to stay independent very easy. Notre Dame could of course join The ACC as a full member, signing its rights away to The ACC through 2036, but that will likely not happen considering the length of the contract and the lack of revenue in comparison to the other conferences. Additionally, David Hale of ESPN broke down the Grant of Rights Agreement and estimates that it would cost Notre Dame over $100M to get out of that agreement.
Does Notre Dame Really Have Any Options?
Although The Big Ten has reportedly been interested in pursuing Notre Dame, paying this exit fee from The ACC just does not make it very attainable for Notre Dame to join a conference other than The ACC.
The Big Ten’s new media rights deal that starts in 2023 is set to pay out $80-100M per school. This means that if Notre Dame decided to join The Big Ten, it essentially would be playing revenue free football for a year after the ACC exit fees.
The easiest and most likely outcome here is that Notre Dame will remain independent. With Notre Dame’s contract with NBC nearing its end, Notre Dame and NBC are reportedly in talks to extending their contract for around $60-80M a year, which would put the media rights revenue on par with The Big Ten and The SEC. If Notre Dame is able to extend its deal with NBC for around this number, there is no need to exit The ACC, and that relationship can continue and Notre Dame will still get around $10M a year from the sports that it participates in within the conference.
What has made this route even more likely is the recent announcement of the expansion of the College Football Playoff that Connor Johnson discussed in his recent article. Notre Dame Athletic Director, Jack Swarbrick, has publicly stated that one of the things that would force Notre Dame into a conference is if it was not able to participate in the post season as an independent team. This concern has been alleviated by the new format for the College Football Playoff that will begin in 2026, where there are six playoff spots open for teams that are not conference champions.
This could be bad news for The ACC, as securing Notre Dame as a full-time member would have been enough to preserve the future of the conference. What happens with The ACC and its media rights deal is in flux, but what is likely set in stone is that Notre Dame will not be coming to the rescue.
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