Why won't Notre Dame's football program join a conference? Why does it insist on remaining independent while other Notre Dame athletic programs compete in the ACC? These questions are asked on a perpetual basis, especially in the context of scheduling and College Football Playoff debates. But Notre Dame's football program has a simple reason for remaining independent.
Because it can.
Some might call it opportunistic business. Others might call it arrogance. But the truth is Notre Dame football's brand is strong enough to warrant national attention every year, and the program knows it. NBC knows it, too, which is why the cable network broadcasts all Fighting Irish home football games and reportedly pays Notre Dame $15 million per year for the rights.
But Notre Dame would earn more money if its football program joined a conference, so finances are only part of the school's reasoning when it comes to its football program's independence. The status is not going to change anytime soon for the following four reasons.
Why is Notre Dame football not in a conference?
1. Money (kind of)
In 1991, Notre Dame signed a five-year, $38 million television contract with NBC so the network could broadcast all Fighting Irish home games. Notre Dame at the time was three years removed from its 11th national championship. Coach Lou Holtz was entering his sixth season in South Bend. NBC wanted to tie itself to such a powerful brand.
Almost 20 years later, the only thing that has changed is the amount of money NBC is handing over to Notre Dame for the right to broadcast its home football games. In 2013, NBC announced a new, 10-year contract with Notre Dame that would begin in 2016 and run through 2025. The school reportedly gets $15 million per year in the deal.
According to ESPN, Notre Dame at the time said it would continue using the revenue from the NBC contract to fund its financial-aid endowment for the general student body (not including athletes), and that since 1991, more than 6,000 undergraduates had received almost $80 million in aid generated by the TV deal. Per the report, Notre Dame also uses the TV money to support doctoral fellowships in its graduate school and MBA scholarships in its Mendoza College of Business.
While it does not completely add up, the TV money helps cover what Notre Dame football would earn from a Power 5 conference payout. The ACC in 2019, for example, reportedly distributed an average of $29.5 million to its 14 schools based on its $465 million revenue (the least of the Power 5 conferences). Notre Dame received just $7.9 million.
"There is no financial advantage to Notre Dame being independent in terms of operations,” Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick told The Athletic last year. "It costs us money. We would be much better off all in with the ACC or any Power 5 conference.
"But it is the broader value it produces. And this is the dynamic that’s always a bit hard to articulate and engage in for the fans just focused on whether you’re going to win the national championship. That is very important to all of us, but the decisions we make don’t just drive to that question.”
One small financial advantage to Notre Dame football remaining independent, though, is the fact that the College Football Playoff awards a base amount of money to independent programs regardless of whether they make the Playoff, and Notre Dame gets the most. According to Business of College Sports, Notre Dame was awarded more than $28 million over the first five years of the CFP while participating in the Playoff only once.
In 2018, Forbes listed Notre Dame as the seventh most valuable college football team with a revenue of $112 million and a profit of $72 million.
The program is doing just fine financially as an independent.
With its all-but-football deal in the ACC, Notre Dame football doesn't get the same conference revenue share other programs get. But it also is not obligated to play what otherwise might be a boring (and in many cases, weak) schedule almost completely full of ACC opponents.
Notre Dame is obligated to play just five ACC opponents per year, and the rest of the schedule is, for the most part, a blank slate of possibilities. Last year (and in 2017) the Fighting Irish played Georgia. They've renewed their rivalry with Michigan over the last couple seasons. Texas and Oklahoma have clashed with Notre Dame in the last decade. The rivalry games with USC, Stanford and Navy are protected.
This is a great deal for Notre Dame football fans, who don't have to watch their team play the same eight or nine teams every year. And Notre Dame football deserves credit for generally scheduling tough opponents in those open, non-ACC slots.
The TV networks love this, too. ESPN/ABC routinely broadcasts Notre Dame away games because of the ratings draw the program is, and those ratings are amplified when the Fighting Irish play in big games. Last year's Notre Dame-Georgia game was such a big deal to CBS, the network sacrificed its only prime-time window of the season to show the game at 8 p.m. ET and forced itself to broadcast LSU-Alabama in its 3:30 p.m. ET window later in the season.
Notre Dame vs. Georgia ended up being the second-highest rated game of the regular season followed by, of course, LSU vs. Alabama.
When Notre Dame reached the BCS championship game in 2012, it was aided by a win at No. 8 Oklahoma in late October. When Notre Dame reached the College Football Playoff in 2018, wins over No. 14 Michigan and No. 7 Stanford boosted the team's resume. The Fighting Irish might not have had title chances either year had the program scheduled cupcakes.
3. Best of both worlds
Notre Dame football gets (almost) all of the benefits associated with playing in the ACC. And the ACC gets (almost) all of the benefits of such a high-profile program being part of its conference. This marriage, established in 2014, is built to last.
And barring any unforeseen circumstances, it is a marriage that is contractually obligated to last. Three years ago, the ACC announced an extension of its football agreement with Notre Dame that will last through at least 2037.
The advantages for Notre Dame are simple: It gets a portion of ACC revenue, participates in the conference's bowl tie-ins and, perhaps most importantly, preserves its football independence.
The advantages for the ACC are equally simple: It gets the TV ratings and attendance boosts associated with Notre Dame away games, and if Notre Dame were to give up its football independence, it would be obligated to join the ACC.
"Based on my background, I realized Notre Dame probably wasn’t going to go all in (with the ACC),” North Carolina athletics director Bubba Cunningham told The Athletic when asked about the conference's acceptance of Notre Dame without football. “There’s essentially three reasons why, and as long as those three reasons are there, they don’t need to.
"They need to have access to the (national) championship. They need to maintain a television contract. They need a place for their Olympic sports in a competitive league. If they have those three things, they’re going to maintain their independence.
"If any one of those three are not available, they’ll have to reconsider.”
Notre Dame considers itself a national school with a national footprint. Likewise, and as the TV ratings prove, Notre Dame football is a national brand. So preserving that broad relevance is important for a program that doesn't want its games confined to one region.
Swarbrick is proud to say no other college football team has played in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York in the same season, and that Notre Dame has done it nine times.
"That’s the role football has to play at Notre Dame,” Swarbrick told The Athletic. "That’s how we contribute to help uniquely position this university."
Added John Baumer, a Notre Dame alum and donor who is a senior partner at a private equity firm in California: "It is a little bit of the United Nations in South Bend, which is great, because it’s very different dynamic than other schools. Regardless of where you live in the country, there’s a good chance, because of that independence, you’re going to see Notre Dame rolling through every year, every few years.
"That keeps people proud of their institution, and you’d lose that if you’d go into the Big Ten or the ACC. It would be such a regionalized schedule that I think that would make it tougher to maintain those relationships with the alumni deep into their careers, especially later in their careers when they’re more in the mode of giving back. I think that’s critical.”