As much as plenty of college football fans like to declare it an irrelevant program, and point to it’s infrequent on-field success, Notre Dame is still a massive draw wherever they play. Just last year when the Irish travelled to Clemson, the demand for tickets was so high that Dabo Swinney remarked that he couldn’t get Jesus tickets. Part of it is the demand to see such a prestigious program, part of it is that there are tons of Notre Dame fans everywhere. As long as the cash keeps rolling in, and the brand is still strong, there is no reason for Notre Dame to join a conference.
While the Irish may not need to join a conference, AD Jack Swarbrick made the genius move to have Notre Dame as a pseudo member of the ACC. This works out very well for all parties. Notre Dame plays five to seven games against ACC teams per year, but still gets to keep its national schedule and traditional rivalries with USC, Stanford, Navy and sometimes Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue. The ACC gets the benefit of having Notre Dame roll into its stadiums and boost the profile of the league with some truly massive games (think Notre Dame @ Florida State in 2014 and Notre Dame @ Clemson last year) which helps some of the struggling teams boost their attendance (the Notre Dame game last year was Virginia’s largest home crowd in three years and was Pitt’s largest home crowd since the last time they played the Irish in 2013). It’s also a boon for Notre Dame’s schedule, with at least five guaranteed games against Power 5 opponents (albeit against some weak teams like Wake Forest) in addition to the aforementioned rivalry games. Not only that, it allows Notre Dame to stay visible. If Notre Dame had joined the Big Ten as many had thought for years, they would have been just another mid-western school with a big stadium, a great fight song and a storied tradition. But the deal with the ACC allows them to remain unique.
The deal with the ACC is nice, but one of the best things Notre Dame has going for it is the fact that they can play a national schedule. They are, for the most part, willing to play anybody, anywhere. For example, this season Notre Dame will play six games in Indiana, two games in Texas and one game apiece in New Jersey, North Carolina, Florida and California. That’s multiple trips into some of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the country. Last year the Irish played six games in Indiana, two in Pennsylvania, and one apiece in Virginia, South Carolina, Massachusetts, California and Arizona. In 2014 Notre Dame played seven games in Indiana (six at home and one in Indianapolis) and one each in New Jersey, Florida, Maryland, Arizona, California and Tennessee. It would be silly for Notre Dame to join a conference and thereby limit themselves to recruiting from just one area of the country. The Irish also have home and home series in place in the next few years against Georgia, Ohio State and Texas A&M further allowing them to recruit in the best regions.
It’s long been held by media members and other coaches that it would be unfair for a 12-0 Notre Dame team to not have to play in a conference title game. But what goes overlooked is that while the Irish do not have to play a conference title game and risk losing their perfect record, they also do not play any FCS teams. Just last year Clemson played Wofford and Alabama played Charleston Southern. Both teams played in and won their conference title game. If Notre Dame joined the ACC today and played in a conference title game, the 13 game schedule would be no more difficult that its current 12 game schedule. This is one of the rare instances where head coach Brian Kelly is right on the money. He is on record multiple times saying he would put Notre Dame’s 12 game schedule up against any team’s 13 game schedule. How much difference is there between a 13 game schedule with FCS teams and a 12 game schedule with zero FCS teams? Not a lot. The Irish really don’t stand to gain anything by dropping Stanford and adding a team like North Dakota State just because there is a chance that they might play in a conference title game.
Another thing that Notre Dame has going for it, and something that really rankles a lot of fans of other teams, is the contract with NBC. The deal has been in place since 1991 and allows NBC to exclusively broadcast all Notre Dame home games, plus the Shamrock Series game. In April of 2013, NBC and Notre Dame extended the deal through the 2025 season. The deal was authored after Notre Dame’s 12-0 regular season, which averaged 4,400,000 viewers per game, up 67 percent from the 2011 season. The contract is reportedly worth $15 million annually for the Irish. It’s been a far more successful venture for Notre Dame than the Longhorn Network has been for Texas. Furthermore, just last year Notre Dame had its own series on Showtime (which will follow Florida State this year) called A Season With Notre Dame Football. Similar to Hard Knocks, it followed Notre Dame and its coaches and players over the course of the season. It led to at least one recruit signing with the Irish, as Kelly revealed in an interview on National Signing Day. Not only does Notre Dame have plenty of money coming in from its contract with NBC, but it was just announced that when the ACC Network launches in 2019, Notre Dame will get a full member’s share of the money which, if done using last year’s figures, would be an additional $24.88 million.
A sweetheart deal with the ACC, a national schedule that allows it to play anywhere, and an exclusive contract with a major broadcast network seems like a lot to give up. That’s why Notre Dame will not, and should not, join a conference. Regardless of the history and independence of the football program, Notre Dame is simply making too much money in its current situation. Why would they want to change that?