Notre Dame, college football realignment and the power of independence

Before Texas and Oklahoma upended the college football world last week, the ACC was already thinking about how it might secure a new, more lucrative TV deal. The only real answer, several athletic directors said at the time, was expansion. Other changes would be incremental, but adding a brand name to the league could generate a massive influx of revenue.

A few of the league's ADs, mere months ago, wondered if perhaps Texas could be the answer to their league's problems. Alas, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey moved quicker. But the Longhorns were always the second option.

The team ACC folks really want, the team the league has pined after for a decade, is Notre Dame.

"They know the ACC's interest," new ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said at the ACC's kickoff event last week, just hours before news of Texas' and Oklahoma's interest in the SEC began to leak. "It's been less than bashful. They know where we're at. Who knows where the future's going to go? I love the schools we have, but you always have to be ready to add."

Now that Texas and Oklahoma are poised to join the SEC, adding to that league's already daunting roster, the pressure for the ACC to lure the Fighting Irish is greater than ever. The new-look SEC, which shares a footprint with the ACC, could potentially earn double the ACC's per-school distribution -- the ACC distributed $32.3M/team last year while the SEC distributed $43.7M/team, but the SEC will earn more with new ESPN contract, so with addition of Texas and Oklahoma, there's thought that new money could exceed $70M down the road. Already as a league, the SEC had $721M in revenue to the ACC's $497.2M. Money aside, the allure of a mega-conference just a tier behind the NFL would give the SEC a massive recruiting advantage over its neighbor, too.

Notre Dame is a lifeline.

"Notre Dame adds real value," one administrator said. "They're the only big prize out there."

As it stands, the ACC is already home for all of Notre Dame's Olympic sports, and that contract -- which runs through 2036, in conjunction with the league's TV deal -- requires that, should the Irish ever want to join a conference in football, too, it has to be the ACC or the school would face a stiff financial penalty in excess of $150 million.

Indeed, when the COVID-19 pandemic annihilated schedules across the country last season, and Notre Dame needed a safe landing spot, the ACC welcomed the Irish with open arms. In 2020, Notre Dame joined the league for a one-year trial run, finishing the regular season undefeated, playing in the ACC championship game and making the College Football Playoff. In fact, because Notre Dame was eligible for a full share of the ACC's revenue payout, the school earned more from its media rights than it normally would have as an independent.

The hope among ACC administrators was that the experience was such a boon for the Irish that there'd be a real push to make the arrangement permanent.

Ah, not so fast, said Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick.

"We thoroughly enjoyed being an ACC member for a year," Swarbrick said to ESPN, "but it also gave our fans that comparison. So not only because of their interest but my own, our own assessment, independence remains a priority and important to us."

This is Swarbrick's familiar refrain, and it's a dagger to the ACC, the Big Ten and the Pac-12, all of whom would love to lure the Irish into their own new TV deals. The truth is, they all need Notre Dame more than Notre Dame needs them, for the moment at least.

"Notre Dame is its own animal," one ACC AD said. "We like having Notre Dame, and we know it helps make us some money, but we don't always like when they take bowl bids and stuff like that. But I don't think we missed a chance. You can't make Notre Dame do much of anything."

As one Power 5 AD explained, independence is central to Notre Dame's identity, and for an athletic department already projected as the fifth-richest in the country, according to Forbes, it would take an awful lot of TV money to change that.

"Notre Dame is not hurting for money," the AD said. "But they're not Notre Dame without independence, and no president or AD wants to be the one who gave that up."

According to another administrator familiar with Notre Dame's philosophy, there are three things the school requires to maintain its independence. The first is a TV partner, and the school's long-standing relationship with NBC means that's unlikely to become a problem. The second is a home for its Olympic sports, and the ACC has guaranteed that through 2036. The last is a path to the College Football Playoff, and the Irish could see that road become wider if the 12-team playoff expansion, created in part by Swarbrick, comes to fruition.

The proposed playoff model does come with a caveat for Notre Dame: Only schools that win their conference title can earn a bye in the first round, meaning Notre Dame will always have to play one additional postseason game. But even on that front, Swarbrick said it's a win for the Irish, who've spent years defending themselves against criticism that their path to the playoff, which doesn't include a conference championship game, is too easy.

"I like the notion that, if we're playing one of the teams with a bye on Jan. 1, we've played the same number of games," Swarbrick said. "I always found the argument [that we don't play a conference title game] very specious, but that's off the table now. If we're playing in that round, we've played the same number of games, even if we didn't play in a conference championship."

That leaves little leverage for leagues hoping to convince Notre Dame to do something completely antithetical to its core philosophy. But of course, money does speak, even for Notre Dame. After all, Texas was already the richest program in the country, and it's jumping ship from the Big 12 so it can make a little more ... OK, a lot more.

But even on that front, Swarbrick seems to be well positioned to maintain independence while modernizing revenue streams.

Among the conferences, realignment is all about money from linear TV networks. At Notre Dame, Swarbrick is thinking about a future in which the Irish control their own streaming channel.

This spring, Notre Dame launched Fighting Irish TV, a direct-to-consumer streaming model, which is home to archived games and feature documentaries. It even broadcast Notre Dame's spring game. According to the school, the response has been overwhelmingly positive -- Fighting Irish TV generated 58,000 minutes of viewing time on its first day, following the team's pro day. For now, it's a free service, but Notre Dame envisions a subscription model that could launch by year's end.

Even in a world where the linear TV revenue for the Big Ten or even the ACC outpaces Notre Dame's agreement with NBC, subscription fees for Fighting Irish TV could ultimately balance that, too. And as Swarbrick sees it, that's just the start.

"It's part of a broader, more important phenomenon we're very focused on, which is the need to fundamentally change the relationship with the fans from a transactional one to a participatory one," Swarbrick said to ESPN. "We don't want to just sell you a ticket. We want to know who you are, what about Notre Dame is important to you and to have all sorts of assets available to you based on what you're interested in that will help build that relationship."

Swarbrick said he has gleaned a useful perspective from the online game Fortnite, where the economic model is created by user investment in building a community.

In the future, Swarbrick sees an opportunity for fans to create transportable avatars, purchase NFT tickets that include real value beyond their seat for a game or earn points for engagement that offer access to special perks, akin to a frequent flyer program.

While none of the plans for Fighting Irish TV are established revenue drivers yet, they'd also all be far more difficult in a world where Notre Dame isn't an independent. Independence offers the Irish flexibility in their business model that might be negated by conference tie-ins.

Even at a time when college football seems on the brink of genuine chaos, that's the reality. At Notre Dame, independence has value.

Perhaps the environment continues to change, and Notre Dame's perspective shifts with it. In a world where one or two superconferences control the postseason, it would certainly behoove the Irish to join up rather than be left out.

It's possible, too, that a league comes up with the right revenue formula, something Notre Dame would find impossible to resist. That could lead to a deal like Texas once enjoyed with the Big 12, where Notre Dame, by virtue of its financial impact on the conference, gets a larger slice of the revenue pie. As one ACC administrator suggested, the league needs to think big and act aggressively.

For now, Swarbrick will continue to listen. Independence has always been a calculated risk, and he said he'd be foolish not to continually recalculate the formula.

"My No. 1 job is to think about this: What is next? What's coming?" Swarbrick said to ESPN. "We just have to be disciplined and thoughtful and look at the trends of what's coming. We ask ourselves every year, is this still the right strategy?"