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Canzano: The price for Notre Dame to turn its back on the Big Ten is set
How much do the Irish need to stay independent?
Notre Dame loves its independence. But we’ll soon find out what that autonomy is worth when it comes to college football media rights and NBC.
The Irish have been with NBC since 1991. The current deal pays the university an average of $15 million a year. It expires in 2025. The Big Ten Conference would love to include Notre Dame as a member.
Fox’s deal with the Big Ten is expected to result in distributions to conference members in the $75 million to $80 million range.
So what happens with Notre Dame and NBC?
I turned to ex-Fox Sports Networks president Bob Thompson for the answer. He’s negotiated a number of big-time media rights deals with a variety of sports conferences over the years.
“They have always taken a bit less TV money than others to retain their independence,” Thompson said. “As the gap widens, though, I have to think that they will have to get a significant increase to make it worthwhile to continue as an independent.”
Notre Dame’s current deal with NBC is backloaded. The Irish receive $22 million this year and will get $24.75 million from NBC in the final year of the deal. Notre Dame also receives $12 million-a-year in distributions from the ACC, where it’s a member in all sports except football and ice hockey.
Total take in the final year of the deal: $36.75 million
The Big Ten may covet Notre Dame and its golden brand, but as long as the Irish have access to the football playoff and a competitive pile of media rights revenue, they don’t need the conference affiliation. But what does Notre Dame need in total annual distributions to justify being independent?
Thompson’s estimate: $78 million in 2026.
Plus, four percent annual increases.
That’s the bar the Big Ten’s $1.25 billion deal with Fox is setting. If you assume the ACC distributions continue to rise in a way that is consistent with the market (3-4 percent annually), then NBC needs to increase its payment to a minimum of $65.7 million in 2026 to keep Notre Dame happy.
Dennis Dodd, of CBS Sports, recently reported that Notre Dame is “targeting” $75 million a year in payouts. Thompson’s estimates dovetail nicely with that figure. But there’s another wrinkle to consider.
Said Thompson: “Notre Dame does very well in the College Football Playoff payout area, especially considering that they don't have to share any payouts with other conference members.”
The payouts for an expanded playoff are expected to increase dramatically. Navigate, a Chicago-based data and consulting firm, demonstrated that an expanded, 12-team playoff would serve as a windfall.
It modeled what a 12-team event would have distributed annually had it existed from the inception of the playoff. Notre Dame was projected to reach the playoff 30 percent of the time and receive an average annual payout of $44 million, per Navigate. Best of all, the Irish wouldn’t have to split its playoff distributions like other conferences do.
Notre Dame could join the expanded Big Ten, sure. But it would have to compete with Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and others for playoff spots. Or it could just stay independent, rake in media rights money, and have an easier path to the playoff.
I’m hoping Notre Dame turns its back on the Big Ten. Not because it couldn’t compete, but because I think moving to the Big Ten would further destabilize college football.
The Irish are an interesting part of the college football ecosystem. Operating as an independent, Notre Dame helps keep the playoff door open for outsiders. Moving to the Big Ten would aid that conference in its quest to gobble up more playoff spots. (For that reason, I suspect the SEC might secretly want the Irish to stay independent as well.)
What does Thompson expect to happen?
“So as long as Notre Dame can get NBC and ACC payouts that get it in the mid-$78 million per year and they have a continued, guaranteed path to the College Football Playoff I really expect them to sit out this round of realignment,” he said.
That’s the number.
I’ll bet NBC and the Big Ten know it, too.
PAYOUT PIE: I studied Navigate’s 12-team playoff payout chart. The Pac-12 was estimated to put 1.7 teams in the playoff and receive $269 million in annual distributions.
Keep this in mind when it comes to two factors:
• The Pac-12 currently splits the playoff and bowl-game distributions equally. It does the same with “units” earned from the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments. I’m told by multiple sources that the Pac-12 has discussed rewarding teams that qualify for the football playoff and basketball postseason by giving them bonus shares of those distributions. Keep an eye on that. It’s merit based and would serve as an enticement to keep Oregon, Washington and potentially some others from getting restless.
• After the defections of USC and UCLA, the Pac-12 is left with only 10 members to share media revenue and bowl-game payouts. There’s been lots of speculation about whether the conference will expand and add San Diego State, UNLV, Fresno State, SMU or maybe poach Houston or some others from the Big 12.
The number of television households matters. So does brand. Consider that when you’re expanding, you’re dividing the postseason-payout pie in more slices, too. If the Pac-12’s annual distribution to an expanded playoff is projected to be $269 million — or $26.9 million to every member, if split evenly.
Add two teams?
That payout drops to $22.6 million.
It’s why the conference has to go slow and only make a no-brainer move when it comes to expansion. I think some form of unequal revenue sharing is going to happen. If I’m Oregon, for example, I don’t want to invest heavily in football, make the playoff and have to share that playoff distribution equally with others.
We’ve all been caught up on the necessity for the Pac-12 to add two members. Why two? It’s an even number of teams for scheduling purposes. But the more I think about it, I’m wondering if the Pac-12 might replace UCLA/USC with only one team — San Diego State? Someone else? It would leave one fewer mouth to feed.
CLOSING WINDOWS: The Pac-12’s exclusive, 30-day negotiating window with ESPN and Fox expired quietly last week.
This sparked some to believe the 30-day period might have been extended. But that doesn’t make sense. The early and exclusive negotiating window doesn’t benefit the conference, it benefits the network partners.
The Pac-12 would never go for that.
Remember, the Pac-12 accelerated the negotiating window by holding an emergency meeting of the Pac-12 CEO Group in early July. The conference voted and announced it was “immediately” opening that 30-day period. Not so it could wait and then extend the window, but because the Pac-12 wanted to get through the 30-day period and get its media rights to the open market and other bidders ASAP.
It’s possible that ESPN and the Pac-12 are involved in a deep, complex negotiation involving a loose partnership with the ACC. It’s also possible that the Pac-12 is selling its in-house network to ESPN for use on ESPN+. That stuff would take time. But you don’t need to be in an exclusive negotiating window to have those conversations.
The more likely scenario is that the 30-day window expired and that the Pac-12 is now legally shopping itself to other media partners. Also, it’s probably waiting for the Big Ten to finish eating and set the market.
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