Thinking Outside the Box: Could Big Ten Eye Another Run at Irish?
By Brandon Castel
Jim Delany has yet to say the words Notre Dame, but there’s no question the Fighting Irish are once again on the mind of the Big Ten Commissioner as he launches a study into the pros and cons of expanding the conference.
“Commissioner Delany took it to our presidents in the December meeting and our presidents were supportive, so he’s launching a study,” Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith said Tuesday night.
“Our position is supportive of the study. We discuss it every year, but this year we felt like the timing was right.”
Right because of Notre Dame.
Like peanut butter and jelly, biscuits and gravy or chicken and dumplings – remember, we’re talking about the Midwest here – the Big Ten and the Fighting Irish were meant to be together.
Discussing the future of the conference in such a manner is nothing new, but there’s no hiding the fact that something seems to be different this time around.
“If you look at the college landscape across the country and you look at the television contracts coming up over the next five to eight years, this is probably the right time for us to see if there is any value in adding a team or teams,” Smith said.
Looking at the TV side of things, one major contract set to come due in the next five years is Notre Dame’s contract with NBC. The Fighting Irish recently signed a five-year extension with the network that has broadcast their games since 1991, one that will take them through the 2015 season.
Notre Dame’s television ratings have taken a nosedive in recent years, coinciding with the team’s plunge in the rankings. The Irish are coming off a 6-6 season, after which Head Coach Charlie Weis was given his walking papers. They haven’t finished in the top 10 since 2005, when the Buckeyes blasted them in the Fiesta Bowl, and prior to that one would have to go back more than a decade to the 1993 season.
With Comcast’s recent acquisition of NBC Universal, there’s a good chance the new ownership will want to rethink their partnership with the University of Notre Dame, especially if the Irish haven’t turned things around on the field, and subsequently in the ratings.
While the Fighting Irish don’t have to share money from their current NBC deal (which pays roughly $15 million annually) with any other schools – one of the main perks of being independent – the Big Ten’s revenue sharing from deals with ABC/ESPN and the Big Ten Network generate an estimated $212 million annually.
That’s $19.27 million per school, just from TV deals, and that number is only bound to go up as the Big Ten Network expands reach and overall impact on the college football landscape over the next five years.
“We feel like we’ve reached a point where we’re very comfortable, now we’ve still got a lot of work to do with the Big Ten Network, but we feel like it’s on an upward trajectory,” Smith said of the two-year-old network.
After adding Penn State to the athletic conference in 1993, the Big Ten extended an invitation to Notre Dame in 1999 to become the 12 th team, only to be rejected by Touchdown Jesus. There are many who feel the Irish would have a similar response to another invitation from Delany, but the forecast seems to show a time in the not-so-distant future where it could be more lucrative for Notre Dame to join forces with their Midwest brethren.
"It's a business, it's a business," Smith said, “At the end of the day, we (all) have to pause and look at where we're going."
It certainly would be good business for Delany and the Big Ten to add Notre Dame rather than one of the other schools on the potential list. Although the conference could expand its reach into new territories if they were to add a school like Rutgers (New Jersey), Syracuse (New York), West Virginia or Missouri, none would have the national implications of adding a program as rich in history and tradition as the program in South Bend.
“Whether we are in a market we feel strong in, but maybe could be enhanced or a whole new market,” Smith said.
For those wondering why the Big Ten should even bother courting the Golden Domers after they turned down the previous invitation, look no further than the numbers. While television ratings are down for the Irish, few schools have a larger following across the country. If new Head Coach Brian Kelly can get them moving in the right direction, it wouldn’t be long before Irish Eyes were smiling again.
“Even when we brought Penn State in, the revenue sharing structure was different. What is the value for a team to come into the Big Ten now,” Smith asked.
“It’s different than what it was. You don’t just bring them in and take your current money and start spreading it around, because we’ll get less.”
Adding a conference championship game would certainly mean more money for Big Ten teams, but it won’t be the “cash for gold” money-maker some people think when they hear the words conference and championship game.
“If you look at those contests, obviously the benefits are great but the money’s not as big as what most people think,” warned Smith, who was a part of the Big 12’s expansion when they went from eight to 12 schools with the addition of the four Texas schools in 1994.
“You share that in your conference and you pay expenses associated with that game. So it’s not huge, but the publicity, exposure, experience for your kids, experience for your fans.
“You go down that list and it’s pretty inspiring.”
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