Times change, and in the constantly evolving (or if you're the Big East, constantly imploding) landscape of college conference affiliation, they can change at the drop of a hat.
We found that out once again on Wednesday.
In the last two years, with conference realignment effecting virtually every FBS conference institution either directly or indirectly, much had been speculated on how things would shake out for college football's only true remaining free agent -- the University of Notre Dame. The Big Ten, the Big 12, the ACC, and even the Pac-12 had been bandied about in recent years as a potential landing spot for Notre Dame sports, including football.
And in the end, ironically, the move that probably calcifies college football's conference structure for the foreseeable future sees Notre Dame actually retaining its football independence, but moving all of its Olympic sports (other than ice hockey) to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Contractually, Notre Dame would be unable to leave the Big East until the 2015-2016 season, but it is working diligently to accelerate that schedule, according to school president the Rev. John Jenkins.
This is obviously huge news, and there are several ways to break this down, but let's stick with the ever familiar "4 Winners, 4 Losers" format, shall we?
4 WINNERS 4. Notre Dame's football independence When it was really starting to go down with college football realignment two summers ago, and again last summer, the question wasn't whether or not Notre Dame would be able to retain its independence, but which conference it would be forced to join to remain on the inside looking out in college football's brave new world, especially with the home for all of its Olympic sports (the Big East) being looted by other conferences like a Vancouver storefront after a Canucks playoff loss.
Conventional wisdom was that no conference that met Notre Dame's standards for academics (Big Ten, ACC) would allow Notre Dame to park its Olympic sports there without Notre Dame's bringing football along for the ride. In fact, check out these quotes from ACC commissioner John Swofford, in chronological order, dating back to last year, in response to the question of partial ACC membership for Notre Dame:
October, 2011: Adamantly anti-partial membership "We're an all-in, revenue-equal conference. That's very basic to us. That's what works for us. ... I think going forward we will continue to consider equal revenue sharing and full membership or no membership (important) in our conference. I don't see that changing."
July 2012: Coming around on partial membership, i.e. negotiations with ND underway "All I can tell you is that in the past, and this pretty much goes back to when Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College came into the league, our schools felt at that point in time that they were not interested in anything other than full membership with anybody. Has that changed? I don't know. ... The only thing I have to go on is based on those previous conversations."
September 12, 2012: Welcome (partially) to the conference, Notre Dame! "We've always been all in as far as full membership. In recent years, we've discussed this in a changing world. What was best 20 years ago is certainly not always what is best in today's world. That transition and thinking evolved over a period of time."
Notre Dame's partnership with the ACC, which will also include five football games per season against ACC opponents, further solidifies Notre Dame's future as an independent in football, building upon the new playoff structure which goes into effect in 2014 and does not require a team to win a conference title to participate in the four-team playoff structure.
In short, in a world where a year ago people were assuming Notre Dame would have to join a conference for football imminently, their independence is now stronger than it's been since the late '90s when they publicly turned down an offer to join the Big Ten.
3. Notre Dame's bowl outlook It's no secret that the Big East's recent slide had a detrimental effect on Notre Dame's non-BCS bowl outlook. In years past, Notre Dame had a cooperative agreement with the Big East and the bowls affiliated with the Big East whereby Notre Dame would be available to those bowls for selection if the Irish had a record within a game of the potential Big East schools available.
With this new alignment with the ACC, Notre Dame will enjoy similar benefits:
According to commissioner John Swofford, Notre Dame will have a provision that requires the Irish to be ranked higher than, equal to, or within one win of a full ACC member to be selected above them in the league's non-BCS bowl selection order. Swofford also confirmed that Notre Dame is one of several potential opponents for the ACC in the Orange Bowl. The Orange Bowl revenue, along with all football-related revenue, will be shared equally among the 14 all-sports members. The Irish will be equal sharing members for all television revenue for Olympic sports, which Swofford estimated as "20 percent" of the ESPN deal.
Speaking of the ACC's television rights fees....
2. The ACC's future television rights fees ....one of the key reasons that the ACC raided the Big East to pilfer Syracuse and Pittsburgh last year, in addition to protecting the ACC borders from an SEC or Big Ten raid of its own, was to allow the opportunity to re-open television contract negotiations with ESPN. With two additional teams, rights fees would need to be increased. However, even after renegotiating, the ACC wound up with a $17 million annual per school deal that was relatively disappointing, especially considering the ACC also forked over its rights to sell its own third tier games. (By comparison, the Big 12 schools each receive $20 million annually and retain their third tier rights to sell their own content, hence the Longhorn Network.)
Well, with the Notre Dame brand in the fold and a handful of Notre Dame road games each season in ACC territory guaranteed, the conference essentially gets a mulligan on last year's shank into the rough. Notre Dame, not surprisingly, will retain all of its revenue from its contract with NBC.
1. Stability Professional wrestling loudmouth "Rowdy" Roddy Piper has a famous saying: "Just when they think they got the answers, I change the questions." That quote could just as easily be attributed to whichever football gods are responsible for realignment each of the last few years. Just when we think it's over, it happens again.
Well, I don't want to jinx it, but I think this should tie things down for a little while. The whole movement to four 16-team super conferences (which seemed to be everybody's assumption mostly because 16 seems like a tidy, math-friendly number) has stalled and given way to conferences only looking to add members if said member brings up the per school television rights fee take.
Specifically, with the ACC, they also happen to be the conference with the most ripe members that would appeal to the Big 12 and SEC if they decided to expand. Now, with the association with a strong brand like Notre Dame, the ACC schools feel better about the future of the conference. Well, that as well as....
4 LOSERS 4. Any ACC member who might have wandering eyes ....in conjunction with the ACC's announcement that Notre Dame would be joining, they also announced the following:
The ACC ensured on Wednesday that its addition of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish won't go to waste by increasing its exit fee to $50 million. That increase was voted on by the conference's Council of Presidents.
Easy enough for departing Big East schools to throw $5 million the conference's way to exit the league. In today's whorish realignment circus, that's the equivalent of the diamond encrusted horseshoe pin that Tony Soprano gives to every girl he breaks up with.
$50 million? Well, even Tony Soprano wasn't gonna pay that much to get out of relationship hell. Nobody's paying $50 million to leave any conference, let alone a good conference.
3. Big Ten Back in the late '90s, the Big Ten made a very public courtship toward Notre Dame, in response to which Notre Dame decided to say "Thanks, but no thanks" for a handful of reasons. First and foremost, Notre Dame just wanted to maintain its independence because it's who it is. Football independence is baked into the Notre Dame brand and experience, like Touchdown Jesus, Rudy, and circus lunch at the South Dining Hall (don't ask).
However, if the day came where independence was no longer possible or practical, there were other reasons why the Big Ten was never really an option for Notre Dame. For one, nearly all of the Big Ten schools are large state-funded, research-based institutions, the academic missions of whom are drastically different than a small, private, Catholic school like Notre Dame.
Second, the Midwest geography base which so many used as fuel for the assumption that Notre Dame would land in the Big Ten actually worked to the Big Ten's detriment. Notre Dame fancies itself a national and international school, academically, athletically, and culturally. Membership in the Big Ten means that Notre Dame would be altering its profile, scaling back to more of a regional school. The ACC membership allows Notre Dame to align itself with a strong academic conference with windows into New England, New York, Washington D.C., the Carolinas, Atlanta, and Florida.
The new football schedule for Notre Dame likely means, at best, a rotation of one Big Ten team per year, a far cry from Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, and at times other Big Ten schools all dotting the schedule in a single season. Let the Big Ten fan belly aching begin!
2. Big 12 Rumors were heavy over the summer that the Big 12 was ready to offer Notre Dame a package mirroring the one they announced with the ACC on Wednesday. Like almost everything in the Big 12, Texas was the one steering the ship on courting Notre Dame, specifically UT athletics director DeLoss Dodds. It's unclear how close, if at all, Notre Dame came to serious talks with the Big 12, although Notre Dame was fairly clear that the ACC was the only conference with whom they entered substantive discussions.
1. Big East future passengers And in a vicious cycle that started about a decade ago with Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College leaving the Big East to head to the ACC, one more brick in the Big East wall falls out on Wednesday. Consider that half of the teams that were in the Big East for basketball in 2003 will likely be gone by the start of the 2013-2014, and the only remaining football playing members from that year will be Connecticut and Rutgers, both of whom are probably sending candy-grams to Swofford's office to try and become the ACC's sixteenth team, as we speak.
Houston damn near threw a parade when they were invited to join the Big East last season, which anyone with any sense of history of the Big East knows is like bragging about being invited to a tire fire.
The crown jewel of the Notre Dame athletics product is its football program, which the Big East never had and, by and large, the ACC will not get. The fact of the matter is that Notre Dame's departure will have far less effect than some will have you believe when it comes to whatever dollar amount some combination of networks will pay the Big East for its television rights in the next year or so. Football drives that, and the Big East's football product didn't change one bit today.
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The Big East's bigger concern football-wise should be the combined 3-9 record of the teams joining the conference next season. That will ultimately hurt their television rights negotiations far more than Notre Dame moving its Olympic sports to the ACC.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. weekdays, and watch the simulcast on Comcast 129 from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.