March 19, 2010. A liberal friend of mine once suggested that the difference between liberals and conservatives is that “conservatives stubbornly refuse to change with the times, clinging to ideas that once made sense a century ago.” While this is a bit simplistic, there is also some truth to it. I thought about this when a former first lady tackled the teenage pregnancy issue by launching an abstinence campaign aimed at educating these girls, apparently blissfully unaware that the world had changed in a way that made such a solution impractical if not laughable. As one might have guessed, billions of dollars of taxpayer money barely impacted the teenage pregnancy problem. You see, often times in life, one must make a decision between an ideal solution and a pragmatic one, options that often force one to make a choice at the proverbial fork in the road. It is precisely this position that Notre Dame finds itself today.
For tradition rich Irish fans, it’s been more than 20 years since they won a title in football. Blow the next round of conference expansion, and Notre Dame risks becoming irrelevant.
As I discussed in two previous blogs, both the Big 10 and the Pac 10 seem destined to pluck members from other conferences in order to each expand to at least twelve members. Doing so would allow each conference to play an extra revenue generating game called the conference championship game. This game can be expected to generate an additional $10-15 million dollars in revenue, and it would also open up a new television market for each conference, exponentially increasing the conference’s television revenue. Thus, it is only a matter of time before both of these leagues add new members, an event that could trigger a seismic shift in the college landscape that could threaten the very existence of some of the lesser conferences. Should these two leagues expand and add a championship game, all of the major BCS conferences would then play a championship game, presumably making it much tougher for a team from a conference that does not have such a game to play for the whole enchilada. Only a fool would stand by in a torrential downpour with a closed umbrella tucked beneath their arm dripping wet. And that fool goes by the name of Notre Dame.
Dab smack in the middle of Big 10 Country, Notre Dame has flirted with the idea of joining the Big 10 as recently as 2003, concluding that they wish to remain independent. Notre Dame has decided to remain independent even though they already have annual rivalries with three Big 10 schools: Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue. But despite this obvious fit and the impending change in college football, Jack Swarbrick, the Notre Dame Athletic Director, while voicing concern that Notre Dame’s hand may one day be forced, concluded his comments last week by saying “[w]e’re trying like hell to maintain our football independence. I think it’s good for college football and it’s good for Notre Dame.”
With all due respect Mr. Swarbrick, it’s not good for college football or Notre Dame.
After spending countless hours reading articles and thinking about this issue, I have come to the conclusion that there are only two reasons to field a football team for a college institution: to make money and to try and compete for championships. And Notre Dame is not capitalizing on either.
It was not that long ago that Notre Dame’s estimated nine million dollar deal with NBC was considered the gold standard. But, with the advent of cable television and TV network deals, Notre Dame’s pact with fledgling NBC earns them a fraction of what each Big 10 school collects from their Network alone. Just last year, the Big 10 Network grossed $242 million dollars, meaning that each of its members earned approximately 2 ½ times the TV revenue made by Notre Dame through their NBC deal. This money does not even include the separate deal the Big Ten has with ESPN for some of its marquee games or revenue from the bowl games, revenue that almost every season is padded by the addition of a second BCS birth for the conference (Notre Dame also receives some BCS money even when it doesn’t appear in a BCS game, but it pales in comparison to the total sources of revenue described above). Add to this the additional revenue expected to be generated by conference expansion and a championship game, and it’s clear that Notre Dame’s NBC deal is costing the Irish millions of dollars every year. All of this might be just fine with their rabid fan base if the Irish were performing well on the field. Unfortunately for the most unrealistic fan base in all of sports, recent history has not been kind to the Notre Dame fan.
A college football team’s success on the field can be measured in large part by what type of bowl they get invited to and how they do in those games, since the teams with the best records get invited to the best bowls. Since 2000, Notre Dame has been invited to a BCS bowl (Orange, Sugar, Rose, Fiesta, and the BCS championship game, the ones that matter) three times; losing the Sugar Bowl to Louisiana State 41-14 in 2007, the Fiesta Bowl to the Ohio State University 34-20 in 2006, and the Fiesta Bowl again in 2001, losing yet another squeaker 41-9 to Oregon State. And if you are keeping score, that is zero appearances in the BCS championship game in the last decade for the school with the second highest winning percentage of all time. In fact, it has now been 22 years since the Golden Domers could claim that they were the best team in all of college football. It has gotten so bad for Notre Dame that they failed to make any bowl at all in 2002 and 2005 (you only need to go 6-6 to be bowl elligible, and ND always gets an invite at 6-6), had to settle for the Hawaii Bowl in 2008 playing the Rainbow Warriors, and they abstained altogether from accepting a bowl bid in 2009 because the school anticipated another Hawaii type bowl offer, a game that would have actually represented an out of pocket expense for the Irish. What has happened to the once proud tradition of the Notre Dame football?
ND AD Swarbrick says he’s spending 50% of his time these days talking about expansion. What is he wasting the other 50% of his time on?
And make no mistake; the struggles of Notre Dame are bad for the game of college football as well. Like them or not, Notre Dame is a name brand in college football, much like the New York Yankees in baseball and the Dallas Cowboys in football. When the Fighting Irish are playing well, fans tune in either desperately hoping that they win or lose. When this happens, ratings go up, advertisers line the pockets of bowl committee executives, and loyal domers buy jerseys and travel to bowl games in droves. Stated succinctly, everyone is better off when the Fighting Irish are playing in Bowl games that actually matter, an increasingly rare occurrence under the BCS system.
What came through in Swarbrick’s press statement is a realization that the world of college football may be moving on without Notre Dame. After Penn State joined the Big 10 in the early nineties, it left only Notre Dame and two service academies as the remaining Independents. Having a national program doesn’t mean what it used to; with all of the television coverage these days, just about every major program is televised on a regular basis each week somewhere. Even a small school like Boise State has figured out a way to be regularly televised in prime time on ESPN (and those Boise State Broncos are having the sort of success on the field that Notre Dame used to). Kids grow up now yearning to play in conferences, and recruits these days weren’t even alive when Notre Dame was championship significant. Irelevant indeed.
I agree with a fellow blogger at Word Press (at Frank the Tank’s Slant, see my links to the right of this article), who believes that a few weeks ago the Big 10 may have leaked an expansion report and openly courted Texas with the hopes of forcing Notre Dame’s hand. If the Big 10 could convince Notre Dame that another big time school was interested, perhaps the Irish would finally give up on this independent thing for fear of having their options limited forever (while the Big East is a nice assignment for College Baskeball, the conference doesn’t have the same cache when it comes to football). My question is, should such chicanery be necessary to convince the Fighting Irish to do what’s obviously in their own best interest? Why in the name of touchdown Jesus is Notre Dame trying to preserve a status quo that is no longer working for them?
It’s simple: blind adherence to tradition. And while my readers know that tradition is very important to me, sometimes one is forced to evolve lest you relegate yourself to becoming completely irrelevant. And this is precisely the cross roads at which the Golden Domers find themselves at a very crucial moment in the history of college football. It’s the opinion of this author that Mr. Swarbrick is probably smart enough to realize this, and his statement is an attempt to begin to change the way the Irish fans, alums, and boosters think about their favorite college football team and the concept of independence. As things stand right now, Notre Dame is leaving millions of dollars on the table while fielding a team that more often than not has failed to even be competitive. One need look no further then the back to back losses to Navy, a service academy for which football is hardly a priority for its young men, for evidence of the state of affairs in South Bend. Is this really the future for the once proud Irish fan base, left to watch the team struggle with the decision of whether to accept a bid to play in bowl games the likes of the Meinke Car Care bowl? No wonder Lou Holtz has gone completely mad on ESPN.
If the Big Ten is the teenage girl that’s about to get pregnant, then Notre Dame is the old maid that lives alone in a dilapidated house with five cats.
Hey, good luck beating Navy next year gentlemen.
(photo’s courtesy of NBC Sports and CNN.SI)
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Categories: College Football