Monday, June 14, 2010

Conference Realignment and Notre Dame

While everyone else in the world has their eyes fixated on soccer cleats and their ears tuned to the nonrelenting drone of vuvuzelas, talk of imminent conference realignment has recently been the point of focus for college football fans. It looks as if Colorado and Nebraska's exodus from the Big 12 has opened the flood gates to push more teams out of the conference. This morning, ESPN's Joe Schad reported that "the odds are very strong that the departure of Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State to the Pac-10 is imminent," adding that Texas A&M is likely to join the SEC, leaving Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Baylor, and Missouri in the dust.
So where does this leave Notre Dame? Does joining a conference make sense at this point? If not now, is there a possible scenario that would force the Irish away from independence? Is there any way to stop the stupid buzzing of those damn vuvuzelas?

It is obvious that decision making at the University of Notre Dame is always done with the overarching goal of doing what is best for the university. Fortunately for football fans, success on the gridiron brings in a significant chunk of revenue that is used to support many other university organizations. In addition to ticket sales, merchandise, and TV contract revenue, I have been told by members of the investment office that even donations can significantly be affected by the success of the football team. None of this should come as a surprise, but the point of this paragraph is to illustrate that Jenkins et al, acting in the best interest of the university, will try to put our football team in the best position for success when discussing conference realignment.

For the sake of simplicity, a successful football team is comprised of two elements: good coaching and good players. While developing a successful coaching staff merits its own conversation, attaining top players is something that can be more easily talked about. In addition to superior academics, Notre Dame sells itself to recruits with three pitches, all of which will be affected by conference realignment. Here, are the elements of our competitive recruiting advantage discussed in no particular order:

1. Playing a unique schedule: Being independent allows Notre Dame scheduling flexibility that would not exist if the Irish were in a conference. Storied rivalries such as USC, Michigan, and Navy can be routinely scheduled while still giving the Irish room to play storied programs such as Oklahoma or Miami in any given year. Offering recruits the ability to play across the country (or out of the country as is the case with the upcoming Navy game) and in unique venues (see Yankee stadium, the Meadowlands, and possibly Soldier Field) is something that teams in a conference simply cannot offer. For better or worse, ND commits generally don't have to worry about playing 1-AA programs either.

2. Unique program tradition: The four horsemen, the Gipper, and the House that Rock Built combine with many other elements to comprise Notre Dame's tradition. While it is tough to make an argument that any program's tradition is "the best," it can at least be said that ND holds a unique spot in college football's history. Joining a conference wouldn't necessarily take this away, but Notre Dame's tradition is rooted in its independence, and becoming part of a conference would certainly at least make the Irish more like everybody else.
3. Superior media exposure: A nationwide fanbase (partially brought about by national scheduling) and a unique program tradition have combined to give Notre Dame unparalleled national media exposure. An exclusive national TV contract guarantees recruits that their family and friends can watch any home game on TV, and media giants such as ESPN tend to give more time of the day to Notre Dame and its players than they arguable deserve at times. Joining a conference would strip Notre Dame of this privilege, taking away one of its key recruiting competitive advantages. When discussing the potential increased profitability of joining a conference, Jack Swarbrick has gone so far as to say "the finances are way down on the list of things [determining Notre Dame's independence]," and the intangible benefits provided by having an exclusive national TV contract are just one reason why the immediate bottom line is less relevant in this case.

It is of my opinion that joining any conference (as the current BCS landscape currently stands) would take away from all three of these recruiting competitive advantages. Notre Dame would have to compete with large state schools on the benefits of academics, class size, campus atmosphere, and the privilege of living in South Bend. With the recent lack of success of the football team, these criteria may not be enough to compete with top tier schools, and recruiting (and the success of the program) would likely suffer. Short term revenues brought about by joining a conference will likely be outweighed by the loss of future program revenues if the team falls into mediocrity.

That being said, dramatic shifts in conference realignment could lead to a different scenario. It is not unfathomable that the next few years could see the demise of the Big 12 and Big East conferences, leaving only four "super conferences."

Conference play among a 16 team conference could make it even more difficult for teams to play out of conference late in the season, making it difficult for Notre Dame to fill out a schedule with quality opponents. The ability to schedule nationally is somewhat diminished if it means ND is traveling to play teams like Iowa State instead of USC. ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX would scramble for exclusive deals with the conferences, possibly leaving Notre Dame without access to a deal. And while program tradition rooted in independence is part of the Irish sales pitch, it would carry much less weight if it left the Irish without access to the BCS (or whatever form it will have by then). Joining a conference would cause some of our competitive advantages to take a hit, but sometimes it is necessary to make small sacrifices in order to avoid a more damaging blow.

Fans convinced that Notre Dame will perpetually remain independent may hear all of the conference realignment chatter as nothing more than a drone of vuvuzelas, but rest assured that Jenkins, Swarbrick, and co. are listening closely. If the future holds changes that will hurt the chances of success for our football program, don't expect the Irish to be left in the dust.

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