When news broke days ago that Notre Dame would likely be joining the ACC for a year, it provided the perfect setting for Irish-haters to unleash all their frustration regarding the most prominent Independent program. Whether they took to discussion forums, Twitter, or smack-talk groups, the complaints, rants, and general whining flooded the Internet.
“Why would the ACC bail out Notre Dame?”
“Make them join a conference, it’s their own fault”
“They need to join in every sport or get out”
Whatever the complaint was, the pending agreement to let the Irish play in the ACC for a year caused all the outrage regarding what many perceive as special treatment for Notre Dame to spill out of all corners of the web. And quite honestly, the ignorant hysteria was hilarious to take in.
Because nobody gets it.
The ACC needs Notre Dame; they did when they entered their contract with the Irish in 2014 (more on that later), and they do now, more than ever. The ACC is at an all-time low in popularity, and the presence of Notre Dame has been the driving factor in increasing their revenue over the past half a dozen years. In the last ten years, the conference saw just two different football champions, with Florida State dominating the first half of the decade, and Clemson’s dynasty taking over the second. Last year’s ACC championship, featuring the Tigers’ 62-17 demolition of the Virginia Cavaliers, was far and away the least watched Power-5 championship. The game, a primetime kickoff on ABC, drew just 3.97 million viewers, nearly two million less than the Pac-12 championship. They were more than doubled in views by a noontime kickoff Big 12 clash, and they were more than tripled by the Big 10 (13.55 million) and the SEC (13.7). The TV ratings for ACC games not involving Notre Dame are at an all-time low, and outside of their FSU and Clemson dynasties, the ACC has offered the college football world little exciting material over the past ten seasons, and the numbers agree.
So what is this deal between Notre Dame and the ACC?
Essentially, when the Irish and ACC put pen to paper and made this contract official in 2014, it entitled the Irish to full membership in every sport except football (where they remained independent) and hockey (which the ACC doesn’t have). Notre Dame, in return, agreed to play an average of five games per season against ACC opponents (always between 4-6 games) for the duration of the contract, which is currently set to expire in 2037. The Irish were a coveted program by virtually every Power-5 conference, with the Big 10 offering Notre Dame a conference slot, ND being linked to the Big 12, and SEC at least exploring the possibility of adding the Irish to their ranks. The ACC scored about as good of a deal as could have been expected, as even though they didn’t get the full membership of the iconic Notre Dame football program, they got a 20+ year guarantee that the Irish would be engaged on the gridiron with ACC opponents for nearly half of each season. The deal was signed prior to the 2012 season and took effect in the 2013-2014 season. Ultimately, Notre Dame chose the ACC over other conferences because it was good for their basketball program and Olympic sports such as swimming and fencing, the latter being a sport which consistently sees the Irish near the top of the rankings. Why did the ACC go along with this? And why do they continue to do so?
This is easily the biggest reason. Money talks, and Notre Dame both has money and brings it to the table wherever they play. In the first four seasons with the Irish as their 15th team, the ACC’s guaranteed television revenue increased 48.6%. Because Notre Dame earned 6.2 million off this shared revenue in 2016, whereas ACC programs earned more than four times that, pocketing 26.21 million dollars on average. The financial flexibility stabilized membership within the conference and helped end a period of turmoil and change. In 2019, Notre Dame’s cut of the ACC Network revenue was still under 2 million dollars, ‘costing’ each program under 500,000 dollars. And Notre Dame makes up for that with the national footprint and following they bring with them. Just look at the 2019 season opener in football. Louisville, a 2-10 team in 2018 was given the ACC’s guaranteed Labor Day primetime game on ESPN. Why? Because Notre Dame was visiting. And that game was the 2nd-highest rated game of the weekend, drawing in 5.6 million viewers. No other ACC game, including Duke’s trip to Alabama, attracted that many viewers. By the end of the year, ND’s season-opening trip to Louisville remained the most-watched game involving an ACC team on the year. Not only did the whole conference benefit from the higher TV ratings, but Louisville drew a record crowd of 58,187 for their season opener, outdrawing any of their home games from the Lamar Jackson era which included a top 5 clash with Clemson.
Last year saw only two weeks past Week 5 in which an ACC game cracked the top-5 most watched games of the week, one of which was Virginia Tech at Notre Dame in Week 10. If it hadn’t been for their Orange Bowl contract, no one besides Clemson would have come close to a New Year’s 6 bowl-game berth. At it’s best, the ACC provides one good team beating up on mediocrity, and at it’s worst, it simply provides unwatchable football. To put this case in point, 12 of Notre Dame’s 13 games last season fell into the top 25 most watched game of the week or bowl season, with many cracking the top 10. The only one that didn’t was Notre Dame’s clash against the Duke Blue Devils. The ACC is so uninteresting to the college football world that even the golden allure of the Irish couldn’t pull in viewers. And how willing are viewers to tune into Notre Dame games? The Irish’s Week 6 game was the 12th most watched game of that particular week. Their opponent? Bowling Green.
Let me say that again: Bowling. Green.
The Bowling Green Falcons finished the 2019 season with a 3-9 record and their trip to South Bend ended in a 52-0 defeat. It’s the type of game that even Notre Dame fans don’t particularly enjoy watching after a certain point. And that game was watched more than any single game involving an ACC team that week. 1.28 million people watched that contest, while under 900,000 tuned into a key divisional clash between Virginia Tech and Miami, televised on ESPN. That’s about as embarrassing as it gets.
Off the Gridiron
Notre Dame does not only provide an impact on the gridiron, having experienced plenty of success away from the football field. The soccer team won a title in the first year of the partnership, the lacrosse team made it to consecutive Final Fours, their men’s basketball team won the conference once and qualified for back-to-back Elite Eights, and most notably the women’s basketball team won four straight conference titles before a national title in 2018 and national runners-up finish in 2019 punctuated their highly successful run. Overall, Notre Dame brings far and away the most well-rounded athletic program to the table within the ACC, which only benefits the conference in terms of strength of schedule, which helps with NCAA Tournament appearances, and it helps elevate the play of other teams in the conference – seen in the rise of Louisville to challenge the Irish for ACC supremacy in women’s basketball, among other areas. For a conference floundering in many areas, the ACC has been saved by the international allure and fanbase of Notre Dame, and they’d be foolish to throw that away for the sake of proving some petty point about Notre Dame being independent.
Breaking it down
Let’s wrap this up and make it clear: The ACC needs Notre Dame right now. Ever since the initial deal was struck, the Irish have had an open invite to join the conference and are contractually obligated to do so if they opt to eventually surrender their independence permanently. The ACC never expected Notre Dame to accept this invite, and the boys in the blue and gold have never expressed an interest. Quite frankly, the ACC deal hurts Notre Dame in football, as the growing irrelevance of the conference outside of Clemson destroys Notre Dame’s strength of schedule, wasting prime game slots that could have been used to schedule better programs. Notre Dame has been able to fit some of those better programs into their schedule in this upcoming decade, with home-and-homes against Ohio State and Alabama among the most prominent, but they’ve given up chances to have more of those clashes in favor of this ACC deal. Sure, Notre Dame might be in trouble for a year if the ACC didn’t throw them a lifeline. But make no mistake, if the conference ruins that relationship, there’s little incentive for the Irish to stick around.
Whether they join the Big 10, or maybe even switch back to the Big East, which has become a much more competitive program in basketball since Notre Dame left, or retain their independence all the way around, Notre Dame has both the resources and the allure to attract high level opponents wherever they go. Is this “statement” that crazed Notre Dame haters want the ACC to make even close to worth it? The answer is a resounding no. Plus, don’t think Notre Dame is an institution that doesn’t notice when you help them. You can ask Navy about that; after the Naval Academy saved the Notre Dame institution during World War II, the Irish paid the favor back by playing them every year since on the football field, a series which has greatly benefited Navy, who plays their home games at various naval bases around America, even taking the series to Dublin on multiple occasions. The ACC has slowly watched their financial status improve throughout Notre Dame’s tenure as a limited partner with the conference, and if the Irish ever join as a full-time member, including football, the conference’s revenue would skyrocket. Now is not the time to force Notre Dame into anything. To do so would be shortsighted and harmful. Rather, look for the ACC to be accommodating and assist the Irish in whatever they need to make this season work. It’ll strengthen the relationship, and it would be a move that Notre Dame is unlikely to forget.