Collins: Notre Dame holds future of major college sports

·5 min read

Jul. 10—It's a difficult chore, determining whether to look at Notre Dame as a program with unprecedented financial leverage and power in college football, or as a program in many ways being held hostage by a system changing for the worse.

There is a lot of pressure on the Fighting Irish these days, and it's coming from all sides. Conferences waving money and touting the potential for more. Media salivating over website clicks and television ratings. Even, probably, its fair share of administrators hanging on to something college football once called "tradition."

But Southern California and UCLA, both nearly as big a cultural institution out West as the Pacific itself, are no longer in the Pac-12 as of 2024, having joined the Big Ten last week. And that's months after Texas and Oklahoma, charter members and symbolic anchors of the Big 12, announced they were heading to the SEC.

It's a complete change of direction for college athletics, a shift toward mega-conferences, more lucrative money-makers for members. And it's unimaginable that the big programs still left in places like the Big 12,

Pac-12 and ACC wouldn't happily jump ship for a spot in the Big Ten or SEC right now because of that.

Notre Dame isn't like anybody else, though. And, it never has been. Which is why the Fighting Irish have always been able to do things their way and reap every benefit. In a world where, unfortunately, brand means so much, they're still the biggest in the NCAA, which makes them the last real difference-maker in that ever-changing world.

So what's next for the Fighting Irish, as everyone else repositions? How they answer the following questions is all that really matters in the short-term in college athletics:

Can they stay an independent?

At this point, it doesn't seem advisable if they want to compete for a national championship in football, or maximize their earning potential.

Notre Dame has been facing that fact for a while now. They have a scheduling agreement with the ACC in football, basketball and baseball. Their highly regarded hockey program plays in the Big Ten.

Administrators might be clinging to independence as a bastion of the past, but the future is up for grabs, and Notre Dame has been positioning itself toward joining a conference for years now, however reluctantly.

Does the Big Ten make the most sense?

It always has. It especially does now.

South Bend is in the belly of true Big Ten territory, a couple hours north of the conference's personal titletown, Indianapolis, and within 100 miles of its headquarters in Chicago. It has rivalries with Purdue, Michigan and Michigan State, and its yearly meeting with Penn State became one of the nation's biggest games in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Notre Dame would even get to keep its heated rivalry with USC going.

The Big Ten also has just about the most of what every program is after right now: Enough cash to promise Notre Dame as part of a new, yet-to-be-announced TV deal that reportedly could net member institutions upwards of $100 million annually.

The conference already has at least one program represented in each of the top four national media markets once the SoCal teams arrive. If they invite Stanford as a potential lure for Notre Dame, which has been rumored, they'll have five of the top six markets. But Stanford isn't going to lift the media rights pot much.

Notre Dame will. It really is the only team available that would sweeten that kind of a pot significantly. Because they'll be a draw in every media market, the Irish can ask a lot to get a lot.

Does the SEC make any sense?

Sure it does, in the sense that the SEC also has prestige and money and certainly might spend it to keep Notre Dame out of the Big Ten.

It's so difficult to see Notre Dame in the SEC, though, just as difficult as seeing any of the remaining Pac-12 schools playing there.

The SEC is a megaconference for sure, and intends to be. But part of what built its popularity is its regional nature. There's a reason the SEC is linked more toward expanding with the likes of Virginia, Clemson and Florida State than a school in the Midwest, even if that school is Notre Dame.

Could Notre Dame single-handedly prevent the megaconference conundrum?

As long as Notre Dame waits, so too does the arrival of the mega-conference era of college football, where only two conferences will matter and those left out — even storied programs — will do so at great loss to their brand.

The guess here is, no more significant expansion will happen until Notre Dame decides on its course. The programs the Big Ten can land in Notre Dame's stead should be interested later. In turn, the SEC would have strategic reasons not to lure Virginia, Florida State or North Carolina from the ACC right now, knowing that doing so might force Notre Dame's hand.

Nothing has to happen for a few years, as the current Notre Dame TV rights deal with NBC doesn't expire until after the 2025 season. And maybe in the interim, the ACC can proctor some sort of deal to add the Irish full time, and keep the current conference formula somewhat relevant into the relatively near future.

Money is important, even at Notre Dame. But so is history. Right now, college sports' most historic brand is the one that directs a very different future.

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