When Notre Dame and NBC said "I do" prior to the 1991 college football season, the agreement was groundbreaking. The four-year deal gave the network exclusive rights to broadcasting Irish home games, and Notre Dame received a cool $38 million.
And why not? The Irish were just two seasons removed from their last national title, contending every year and in demand by arguably the largest contingent of fans known to any team in the country.
How things have changed.
Despite Notre Dame's third losing season in five years and all-time low ratings in 2003, the partnership recently was renewed after two previous extensions following the original agreement. The University will receive approximately $9 million annually, the same amount it has been receiving under the previous extension.
The annual dollar amount Notre Dame is taking in has slightly decreased from the first year of the contract. And well it should, considering NBC's ratings this past season averaged 2.4, while the 1991 season attracted an average rating of 5.0. The Near Miss 1993 Irish had a rating of nearly 7.0. No, these are not Jennifer Aniston numbers, but they were pretty darn good for Saturday afternoon.
Now the numbers are pretty darn ugly, and one would have thought the Irish might have been voted off the NBC island. After all, it cost the peacock a staggering $625,000 per rating point this past fall.
But ND and NBC still pledge their love; with good reason.
"We're extremely pleased to augment what continues to be a very special relationship with NBC Sports," said Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White. "The ability to have our home football games telecast on a national basis becomes a tremendous vehicle for us in maintaining a national visibility and platform in terms of our football program's profile and recruiting.
"Since our games at Notre Dame Stadium are routinely sold out, this enables our fans and alumni all around the country to be able to watch our team play on Saturdays. In addition, the resources provided through the relationship have gone a long way toward supporting the mission of the University when it comes to financial aid."
"We are delighted to be continuing our landmark agreement with Notre Dame, which remains the most powerful brand in college sports," said NBC Sports & Olympics chairman Dick Ebersol. "We covet our association with Notre Dame because of its storied tradition, exceptional values and commitment to excellence, both on and off the field.
"With Tyrone Willingham, the football program is in the right hands. He embodies Notre Dame's core values, and his leadership, character and drive assure Notre Dame's return to its traditional place among the elite national powers."
The ongoing relationship sounds great, but why now? What's in it for both sides? And what, if anything, does the renewal have to do with Notre Dame joining a conference?
"I wasn't surprised after they explained it to me," stated Andy Bernstein of the Sports Business Journal, a leading sports marketing industry publication. "Apparently NBC has always done early renewals, and they've generally renewed two years out with Notre Dame so this is sort of a continuing precedent.
"As for (the benefit for NBC), Notre Dame is a property it has had for a long time, and there's a certain intrinsic value in consistency because people know to go to NBC for Notre Dame football," Bernstein continued.
Even Notre Dame football versus BYU, Navy or Rutgers in November? The match-ups, as it turns out, are somewhat irrelevant. NBC needs Notre Dame, the industry experts say, regardless of record or opponent.
"Another thing is that NBC really has pulled back on big, expensive sports properties...they're not with the NBA, they're not with the NFL anymore," said Bernstein. "So in order to maintain some presence and prestige, they've continued to link themselves with some of the smaller but also prestigious properties, namely Wimbledon and Notre Dame. And these are much less expensive...they don't necessarily make money, but if they lose money you're talking about a few million and not tens or hundreds of millions. If Notre Dame becomes one of the top teams again, NBC will do really well.
"The financial part of the deal is pretty much the same so that sort of reflects that it isn't a particularly strong property economically for NBC otherwise Notre Dame would have been able to get an increase," Bernstein said. "But I think that the dollars are so small that NBC can afford to gamble a little bit and hope that the team gets better."
Out in Trojan country, an influential media voice with deep Notre Dame ties sees value in the deal as well.
"I think NBC realizes it has a prime property in Notre Dame football," commented Los Angeles Times sports editor and Notre Dame graduate Bill Dwyre. "It's a thing that attracts a huge following, and attracts a pretty good following even when its down like it is right now. I think all of these things are a gamble, but Notre Dame football is special and they're just a year removed from being 8-0. Although I think it would've helped if Notre Dame would've won a little bit more because then they would've had some more leverage to get more money."
Though Notre Dame has not earned a raise from the Peacock through the years, the payout is still impressive, and the revenues have played a key role in the school's financial aid endowment, as 1,263 Notre Dame undergraduate students have received more than $12.6 million in aid. Plus, televising the home games keeps the team in the national spotlight which, in turn, gives the coaching staff another recruiting tool that no other school in the country has.
(Then again, home spankings versus USC and Florida State this year have significantly hurt the recruiting process, so it's a knife that cuts both ways.)
However, even if NBC had chose not to continue its relationship with Notre Dame, other networks were waiting to court the Irish. But they were unable to approach Notre Dame until the current NBC contract expired in 2005. Before considering the other networks' proposals, the University opted to renew with NBC.
"I'm sure that Fox or CBS, both of which have college football packages that are not nearly as extensive as ABC/ESPN has, would've been interested," noted USA Today's Malcolm Moran. "Both of them could've upgraded their college football programs by adding Notre Dame."
Continually looming in the background is Notre Dame's interest, if any, to join a conference, and how its contract renewal might affect that.
"It seemed as though there was an eagerness to connect dots through issues such as conference affiliation that, at this point, I don't think are connectable," Moran stated. "My view of the renewal was that it was a stand-alone business deal in which both sides protected their interests. Notre Dame secured what has been a very good arrangement for five more years, and NBC was able to hold onto something in an era when it has been difficult for NBC to hold on to sports properties."
"It is my understanding that there is no mention in the contract about anything to do with conferences," Bernstein added. "So Notre Dame could join a conference (and not jeopardize the NBC deal)."
White has maintained on numerous occasions that "they continue to monitor the college landscape," and that they won't rush into a decision. With reportedly no problems concerning the contract, scheduling shouldn't be an issue even though the current schedules run through the end of the contract extension.
"Our schedule at Ball State is made out six years in advance and we only have to schedule three games a year because our other eight are conference games," explained Bubba Cunningham, Ball State athletic director and former associate Notre Dame athletic director. "Being an independent, Notre Dame really needs to lock up their games so they know they've got a full schedule. Plus the teams that they play can let their conferences know when they're playing Notre Dame so another game isn't scheduled. A lot of them are pretty traditional opponents so even though the schedule is pretty far out, it's pretty consistent."
"If they were to decide to make a move to join a conference, some kind of phase-in period would seem to make sense if for no other reason than the schedule," Moran noted. "That way nobody is really placed in a bad position where in a couple of years another school has to replace Notre Dame with a low-level Division I-A school that's not nearly as attractive a game.
"It would be a lot easier if Notre Dame went to their contracted opponents and said, ‘We'll work with you if you work with us.' One thing that I've been told is that when Penn State made the decision to join the Big Ten there were at least one or two games with Notre Dame contracted beyond that '92 snow game, and that when Penn State made its decision Notre Dame basically said, ‘Don't worry about those games, we understand the circumstances, do what you need to do.'
"As it turns out they recently arrived at a contract for Penn State to come back on the schedule in 2006 for a couple of years," Moran said. "So I would think there could be some kind of accommodation like that while maintaining the most traditional games."
With a contract renewal in hand and seemingly small obstacles to overcome should they decide to join a conference, the question remaining is whether or not Notre Dame should indeed make that leap.
"The unfortunate thing is that as attractive as the independent status is, the fact is there is a world outside the gates and that world has been changing rapidly over the last 10 years," Moran said. "We've seen basically what the initiative of one school, Miami, did to the landscape in a matter of weeks (by leaving the Big East and joining the ACC).
"I think that inevitably, to protect their interests, they've going to have to make some kind of a move, and the longer they wait the weaker their position becomes. But I think they have to look into a crystal ball and make a decision based on what is best for the school 10-15 years from now."
"There's pros and cons (in a move to a conference)," Cunningham added. "Remaining an independent is important, particularly for football to play coast-to-coast, because with an eight-game schedule in a conference with three non-conference games...it's hard to play as national of a schedule as Notre Dame has been accustomed to if they were in a league.
"BCS access and the NBC contract are significant factors to whether or not they remain independent, and there are 25 other sports (on the Notre Dame campus) that are impacted by football. But from what I see in athletics right now, contract or no contract, people are looking at other opportunities as the landscape changes very quickly."
"I've always kind of been against conference affiliation," Dywre stated. "I'm probably one of the old guys hanging onto tradition. I just think Notre Dame is different, special and unique. It has its own approach and kind of walks its own walk. If you have this kind of swagger that you've earned over a period of years, why blend it into a gathering of other teams. I wouldn't say that about any other school in the country I don't think, but Notre Dame is Notre Dame."
Indeed it is. It remains a true maverick, the only college football team with its own network and the only major program to remain independent. The independence thing doesn't seem to be working out these days, but you won't find folks at NBC complaining.
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