Should the Superconference concept become reality, there is one team that will be coveted more than any other – Notre Dame. Arguably the most popular team in the country, the Irish have a true nationwide fan base thanks to their Catholic heritage, success on the field, and willingness to travel virtually anywhere. They have one of the oldest and strongest television deals in the country; Notre Dame has been on NBC since the early 1990s. This relationship has made the Irish quite attractive to several hockey-only conferences during this summer’s realignment, despite their relatively quiet on-ice presence.
Currently a football independent, the Irish are members of the Big East in every other sport. Moving their football program to the conference would be the simplest move for Notre Dame, however that may be less than desirable. Their closest grid iron opponents would be Cincinnati and Louisville, neither of which invoke images of passionate fan bases. And if the recent Superconference rumors are true, all three would be in a “western” division with TCU and some combination of Baylor, Missouri, Iowa State, Kansas, and Kansas State. That is a lot of travel to play relatively underwhelming opponents (except maybe the Frogs). Making matters worse, the average attendance for conference football games last season was around 45,000. Notre Dame Stadium holds almost twice that number. For all intents and purposes, joining the Big East as a full member would tarnish the Irish’s storied football program.
Moving to the B1G, however would be far less damaging. The conference’s average attendance last year was just under 72,000, second highest among all FBS conferences. Michigan, Penn State, and Ohio State led the nation in attendance. Eight B1G members had higher average attendance figures than the highest Big East member (Pittsburgh), with two more not far behind. While Pitt, South Florida, and Rutgers were the only Big East members to rank in the top 50, only Indiana (56) and Northwestern (83) failed to do so in the B1G. Notre Dame came in at a respectable 14.
Michigan: 1st (108,933 average)
Penn State: 2nd (107,008)
Ohio State: 3rd (105,261)
Nebraska: 10th (85,888 )*
Wisconsin: 15th (80,109)
Michigan State: 18th (74,741)
Iowa: 21st (70,214)
Illinois: 29th (59,545)
Minnesota: 42nd (50,805)
Purdue: 44th (50,457)
Indiana: 56th (41,833)
Northwestern: 83rd (24,190)
*Not a B1G member in 2010
Attendance numbers translate into dollars – both at the gate and via advertisers. Typically schools/conferences with higher attendance numbers are more valuable commodities to television networks. As such, the current B1G is extremely valuable. Of course further expansion to 16 teams would only increase this value.
Even with the rise of the Superconference and the money involved, would Notre Dame join the B1G? Possibly. The school came closer than most realize in 2003 until a zero hour decision kept the current alignment intact. Although nobody has laid out the factors in the school’s change of heart, it is almost certain that the Irish have some interest in the B1G. Especially if push comes to shove – particularly if the Big East decides to flex its muscle with an “all-or-nothing” ultimatum:
UConn coach Randy Edsall said the football coaches have been asking the conference to deliver an ultimatum to Notre Dame to come into the conference for football or get out entirely for the last two years.
Very few doubt that Notre Dame would choose that latter, based on the small stadiums, the perceived lower quality of Big East football, and the relatively low following of most of its teams. This would leave the remaining Irish teams homeless with few attractive options, after all the Big East is the nation’s premier basketball conference and a force in many other sports. Although the B1G may be a step down on the hardwood, it would probably still be preferable to the smaller FCS or non-football conferences. Most of the conferences willing to take on a football independent have little or no television coverage. Besides, if Superconferences do become reality, nobody knows what kind of role independents will play – if any.
My ideal expansion for the B1G includes Iowa State University. I fear that when the Big XII collapses, ISU will be on the outside looking in with little hope of landing in a BCS conference. Weak athletics, no significant history, and a small fan base mean that the Cyclones are probably doomed to join the Mountain West (best case), Conference USA (acceptable), or MAC (might as well go to FCS).
Notre Dame would join the conference only under certain, dire circumstances—namely, if its nonfootball partner, the Big East, were pillaged to the brink of extinction by the Big Ten.
After dismantling the Big East (I’m sure the ACC and/or SEC will help the process), the B1G will welcome Notre Dame with open arms. Unless the conference decides to make a go of it as a non-football entity, which might be appealing to the Irish as it maintains their status quo.
Michigan* — Ohio State* — Michigan State — Iowa
Penn State* — Indiana — Purdue — Illinois
Minnesota — Northwestern — Nebraska — Wisconsin
Rutgers* — Notre Dame* — Maryland* — Pittsburgh
*Currently has NCAA D1 lacrosse
This alignment gives the B1G six lacrosse programs, which is enough to sponsor the sport and receive an automatic qualifier without requiring any current members to add the sport. Few would dispute the quality of such a lax conference, especially if Michigan performs well out of the gate.