Is there anything that the Big 12 Conference can do to entice Notre Dame to leave its partnership with the ACC and join the Big 12?
That’s the question I’ve been ruminating on the past several days. And the answer I keep coming back to is no.
If you’re keeping up with realignment talk, it’s clear that the ‘Notre Dame question’ is one of the last remaining major chess pieces on the board. The football program, long independent, would be a prize for any conference that could finally convince the Fighting Irish that joining a league for football, finally, is the right thing to do. Heck, the SEC Network’s Paul Finebaum is currently make a case for Notre Dame to join the SEC because nothing says southern football like South Bend, Ind.
Aside — I cover college football games across the country for the College Football America Yearbook, which will be out in a matter of days and features Houston quarterback Clayton Tune on the cover (shameless plug, I know — you can get it on Amazon when it’s out).
That being said, there is NO better place to enjoy a college football Saturday than a home Notre Dame game.
If aliens were to come to Earth and say, “I want to experience college football,” I would set their GPS to South Bend. I know, I know — it’s ‘Notre Dame, it’s irrelevant.’ I used to think that — until I went to a game. It changes your perspective. Anyway …
Notre Dame and the ACC’s Positioning
For now, there isn’t a ton of incentive to Notre Dame to join any conference. The ACC partnership seems to suit them fine. The College Football Playoff doesn’t require conference membership (and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey is currently dunking on any talk about automatic bids — thanks ‘Alliance’). Notre Dame gets scheduling help, the ACC gets some marquee games and Notre Dame remains independent in football. All’s well.
The Big 12 can’t compete with that. In fact, if Notre Dame ever decides to join a league, there’s as good a chance of it joining the Big Ten as there is of it joining the ACC. The Big Ten covets the Irish much like Gollum covets gold rings. There have been more than a few reports that indicate the Big Ten is willing to wait for the Irish to make their choice before pursuing any other schools.
ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said last week at ACC Media Days that he feels confident that if the Irish join a league, the ACC would be their first choice. And there’s some merit to that. The Irish proved it could be competitive with a full ACC schedule in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. The Irish joined the league for one year and won the regular-season title.
For what it’s worth, Phillips isn’t worried about expansion for the ACC, and Fox commentator Tim Brando joined our Heartland College Sports radio host and founder Pete Mundo for a podcast last week about college football. Brando actually believes the ACC is the ‘most vulnerable’ in conference realignment right now.
So, why on earth would the Irish want anything to do with the Big 12? It makes no sense, right?
Well, what do you think about $75 million? Oh, not for you. For Notre Dame.
Notre Dame isn’t hurting for money. The school’s athletic budget rivals the budget at Texas. While it draws revenue from its ACC contract for other sports, it has a special contract with NBC for its home football games. That pulls in about $22 million a year.
Last week, CBS columnist Dennis Dodd — arbiter of all things hip and happening, as we now know, and blocker of our fine Twitter account (follow us at Heartland_CS) — wrote that Notre Dame was looking to create a television contract that would net it $75 million per year. Now, if you don’t like math, that’s a $53 million raise from its current deal with NBC. That’s … a lot.
Notre Dame can’t get that on its own from NBC. Notre Dame knows that. So does NBC. So how do you get it?
You have to partner with someone, right? Well, Notre Dame already has a partner in the ACC. But, the ACC’s television contract isn’t exactly super-fantastic, at least for right now.
ACC teams were paid $35-38 million for the 2021-22 season. Most of that comes from TV money. That’s great news, except the Big 12 actually did BETTER — $42.6 million per team. There’s no breakdown of exactly how much Notre Dame gets in ACC money, but we can take an educated guess.
When Notre Dame joined the ACC for the 2020 season, it made $34.9 million in revenue sharing overall. In 2019, when it was independent, it received about $10 million in football revenue from the ACC. That gives you an indication of Notre Dame’s value to a conference.
The ACC is trying to renegotiate its deal with ESPN, one that doesn’t expire until 2036 and features a full grant of rights. That grant of rights also comes with an agreement from Notre Dame that, if they join a conference, they have to join the ACC.
Contracts are made to be broken, right? If anyone could do it, Notre Dame could. I mean how much did they shell out to pay off game contracts after aligning with the ACC?
I’m betting the ACC will get a new deal done with ESPN. It may include a partnership with the Pac-12. It may not. Remember — the Pac-12 is in an exclusive negotiation window with ESPN and Fox. Per Dodd, ESPN and Fox, who are the Pac-12’s primary partners, don’t want to ‘break the bank’ with some of these remaining TV contracts (that includes the Big 12).
College Football Playoff’s Impact
What’s holding all of this up is not the ACC or the Pac-12 or the Big 12 or any of these conference realignment moves. It’s ACTUALLY the College Football Playoff. Expansion was all but a done deal until the ‘Alliance’ voted against it (thanks again, guys). That would have brought some cost certainty for both ESPN and Fox. I’ve always contended that those two networks wanted to have THAT deal done before they did any other conference-centric deals.
Both know what they’ll spend on the SEC and the Big Ten and know it will be worth it. I don’t blame either network for not wanting to overspend on the other three Power 5 conferences.
Now, everyone is under the gun. And here’s why it matters. Before USC and UCLA bolted, Navigate did some projections for per-team conference revenue payouts through 2029. That included the Big 12’s new alignment but didn’t include the USC/UCLA move. Those projections still had the Big 12 ($51.9 million) behind the Pac-12 ($56.5 million) and the ACC ($55.3 million) by 2029. But the gap was less than $5 million.
Naturally, USC and UCLA moving hurts the Pac-12’s projections. But on paper, there isn’t much difference between the Big 12 and the ACC right now. And, if the Big 12 is able to poach some Pac-12 members, then the rumored ACC-Pac-12 partnership might die, or at least be worth a lot less money. I contend that the teams the Big 12 is reportedly courting are waiting to see what kind of contract the Pac-12’s exclusive negotiating window leads to before making a final decision. Hard to blame them. It’s a big decision.
I’m not high on Notre Dame joining the Big 12. But here’s how the Big 12 can use all of this to their advantage.
I’m GETTING there. Thanks for hanging in there.
Notre Dame, the Big 12 and NBC
Notre Dame joining the Big 12 is irrelevant to this scenario. That doesn’t have to happen for this to be worth it to both parties. Notre Dame’s NBC contract is for its home games ONLY (the Irish usually have six or seven). The road games fall under the umbrella of whatever conference their opponent is part of (usually the ACC, which means ESPN). NBC and Notre Dame are both seeking what they call ‘shoulder programming.’
In other words, if Notre Dame plays a 4:30 local game with USC, NBC wants a game before it (or after it). ESPN does this all day with games from noon to midnight. ESPN even puts its night game on ABC, because over-the-air viewership still matters (at least to the networks because those channels still have the broadest reach — I mean, my mom still has an antenna, people).
NBC only has one college football contract and that’s with Notre Dame. If Notre Dame wants a bigger contract, then NBC needs more than a two-hour Notre Dame pre-game show.
NBC NEEDS games. The SEC is out. The Big Ten is out. The ACC is out. The only two left are the Pac-12 — which looks shaky — and the Big 12, which may not have Texas and Oklahoma after 2024 but at least has a solid membership of 12 teams for the foreseeable future.
This is where understanding ‘Tiered’ television rights comes in handy. You’ve probably heard of them. I’m hardly an expert. But, when a conference like the Big 12 negotiates its television rights, there are three tiers. Tier 1 are the national games. Tier 2 are the regional games. Tier 3 is basically everything else (i.e. Big 12 Now, the ESPN streaming service you all seem to love to hate). That’s a really basic description, because tiers are not about importance of the game or opponent, but about which network is distributing the game and to how many viewers, though those things tend to align.
The Big 12 actually has two working deals with ESPN and Fox for its football games. ESPN has the exclusive Tier 3 rights for the entire Big 12 except Texas and Oklahoma (because, well, you know). ESPN and Fox trade off choosing the rights to the ‘most important’ game that week. That’s why Fox has already elected to take the Alabama-Texas game on Sept. 10 at 11 a.m. local (really well thought out there, Fox — are they not aware how hot it is in Texas in September?).
But one thing that drives Big 12 fans nuts — and, for that matter, our Heartland College Sports staff — is the amount of 11 a.m. central games there are, especially during conference play. Sometimes, when the entire conference is playing, you could have three 11 a.m. games. Those are ‘national’ games only in the sense that they’re on a different ESPN or Fox channel. But they’re not the ‘national’ game, if you think about it.
The Big 12’s Potential Move
Notre Dame’s desire to build a $75 million sports revenue product and the need for ‘shoulder programming’ provide the Big 12 and its new commissioner, Brett Yormark (your younger, hipper and cooler commissioner) a unique opportunity. ESPN and Fox have never asked the Big 12 for complete exclusivity over its TV rights and they are unlikely to do so with so many mouths to feed at the Big Ten and the SEC. But, ESPN still needs the programming. The Big 12 still needs that exposure and revenue.
But, what’s to stop the Big 12 from working a deal with NBC and Notre Dame to provide that ‘shoulder programming’ on weeks that the Irish have a home game, and to provide NBC an exclusive single game or doubleheader on the weeks Notre Dame is on the road or off? Because I don’t know what NBC broadcasts on Saturday afternoons when it doesn’t have Notre Dame, but it’s not football.
Honestly? There’s nothing stopping the Big 12 from pursuing this. Heck, the Big East had five simultaneous television contracts for basketball in the late 1980s.
Envision it like this. The Big 12 has three deals with ESPN, Fox and NBC. ESPN and Fox still get the majority of top choice. But, give NBC the right to choose first once when Notre Dame is at home and twice when Notre Dame is on the road.
Then, if you’re the Big 12, you bolster your hand by taking in the four teams you’re courting from the Pac-12 — Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah. That allows you to add more inventory for broadcast and makes it easier to negotiate with all three entities for contracts that drive up revenue for the league’s membership. (Aside — we’re going to ignore that ‘Big 12-Juco conference‘ comment because, as Mundo pointed out, there are plenty of good reasons for the Buffs to come back).
If that works, and Notre Dame and NBC are both interested, then I would do one more thing, and this is probably what will get my hand slapped. I would invite Stanford to join the Big 12.
The Big 12 and… Stanford?
Notre Dame has three big rivals — USC, Navy and Stanford. You’re not getting USC and there’s no real need to get Navy. Stanford can offer you two things.
The first is a yearly game with Notre Dame on Thanksgiving weekend. I think that Notre Dame will want to continue its rivalry with USC, even as the Trojans join the Big Ten. But, as we’ve seen, rivalries can become imperiled when teams jump to new leagues (see Aggies, Texas A&M, and Longhorns, Texas — at least until 2025).
By adding Stanford, the Big 12 could guarantee a Thanksgiving weekend rivalry game that would be a part of their TV package every year, home or road. The Big 12 could further make the deal richer by ‘encouraging’ Notre Dame to play a Big 12 team every year.
Second, inviting Stanford is actually good for television negotiations. Palo Alto is in Santa Clara County, which is part of the designated San Francisco television market, which is the sixth-largest television market in the country. Say what you want, but television markets matter in these negotiations. Add Stanford and you get access to three of the eight largest TV markets in the country (Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston). I’m not talking about viewership or ratings — I’m talking about ACCESS. That matters nearly as much.
Add Notre Dame, even in a tangential relationship like this? Well, South Bend, Ind., is the No. 98 TV market. That doesn’t get you much. But Notre Dame has enough clout to have its own national radio network (they have an affiliate in San Francisco, for crying out loud) and its own spinoff television contract for football. Not even Alabama has a national radio network.
Let’s face it — the Big 12 has PLENTY of experience with partners that like to have things their way and expect special treatment. If it increases the conference’s revenue, what would it hurt?
It may not be ‘young and bold,’ but it’s creative and it has potential. It would help Notre Dame, potentially help the Big 12 and have the added benefit of potentially hurting both the Pac-12 and the ACC.
What was it Michael Scott used to say about negotiation? You want a ‘win-win-win?’
This might be it. And you don’t have to give up anything you don’t already have to make it happen.
You can yell at Matthew Postins about this on Twitter @PostinsPostcard.