Yesterday we talked about the original game of the century between our future Big Ten rival Michigan State and a school long thought to someday join the Big Ten, Notre Dame.
Today is day 65, and today I will explain why I believe Notre Dame will never join the Big Ten. There are many examples that I will go over, but they all point to one conclusion: The value that Notre Dame has and could potentially bring to the Big Ten would be diminished if they actually joined the Big Ten.
So going back to Notre Dame, how do we place a value on the school? Their brand produces their value. McDonald's has it's Golden Arches, Nintendo has Mario, Nike has it's logo. Two things stand out about Notre Dame that contribute to their brand. Their Irish Catholic background and their independence.
A lot is said about the amount of Notre Dame alumni spread across the country. The same argument can be said about all schools, though. If you look at Notre Dame's enrollment, you will find that it is actually very low. Less than 10,000 students were signed up for classes last fall. Even the nearby Saint Mary's school only contributes about 1,500 students. So if we stated that Notre Dame has 12,000 students and roughly 25% of them will graduate every year, that leaves 3,000 alumni per year. Graduating around the age of 22 and living until 80-ish, that gives us 60 years worth of Notre Dame alumni (or about 180,000 people). That's not a lot. In fact it's roughly .058% of the total population of the United States. This is less than the population of Lincoln, NE.
When people in the media say that Notre Dame has a lot of alumni spread across the country what they really refer to is a lot of fans across the country. It's the schools fans that contribute to most of it's national popularity and that fan base tends to be Catholic. Not all Catholics like football and not all football-loving Catholics like Notre Dame. But, there is a connection there.
Football is the king of sports in this country and no Catholic school competes on the gridiron like Notre Dame. Even after 20 years of mediocrity, Notre Dame is still the flag-bearer for all Catholics in the sport of football. They can relate to the school because they have a connection to it through their belief system. This kind of connection does not exist for any other college football program with the exception of BYU. In 2010, it was estimated that there were 68,115,001 Catholics. That's almost 22% of the population of the United States. That is what makes Notre Dame a national draw. There are Catholics in every city/state/town in this country. They have been known to have been persecuted and persecuted people tend to stick together. Sticking together creates a bond and they can related to each other with Notre Dame football. If there was even one more powerful Catholic football program, Notre Dame would not be where it is today.
The other important aspect of their brand is their Independence. Notre Dame can not afford to become "just another team". Their independence prevents this. They haven't done much in 20 years, but they still are popular because of their "Us against the world" approach. Most Big Ten people hate OSU and love to see them lose. But I guarantee you, after OSU beat Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, Big Ten fans were relieved. They may never admit it, but in the end OSU is one of us and beating Arkansas was a good thing for the conference.
Everyone wants to beat Notre Dame. Period. They play a national schedule in all parts of the land and they either have fans that love to see them win or people that love to see them lose. Fans also notice on the ticker at the bottom of the television screen what the score of the Notre Dame game is, especially if they are losing. Everyone of us does this. "Oh look, Notre Dame is losing. Sweet."
If you don't like Notre Dame, you have said or thought this at some point. If they join a conference, they will become a regional team with a regional schedule. They would no longer go up against the rest of college football, just their fellow conference members. If their on-field performance continues to suffer while in a conference, their brand will hurt.
Being independent, their brand doesn't hurt as much during an off year (or 20). Don't take it personally Big Ten. It doesn't matter which conference they would join, it would hurt their brand. Being a member of the Big East in other sports helps their brand immensely because they get the east coast exposure without forfeiting their football independence.
The Irish may not be in a conference, but they do play a lot of the same teams every year. They play Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue of the Big Ten every year. They also play Army, Navy, USC, and (as of late) Stanford and Boston College. They likely won't give up Army, Navy and USC. They might give up Stanford and Boston College, but would prefer not too. And, when the USC game is in Southern California, it's always Notre Dame's last game of the year. If they joined any conference, they would likely have to sacrifice some of their games against annual opponents.
So, currently their brand is fairly valuable, and they haven't had much success on the football field lately. If they start to win again, it becomes even more valueable. From their perspective, how can they make the most off of their brand? Enter: the Notre Dame Network. The Irish's contract with NBC is through 2015, but NBC loves them. With all of this talk about Conference Television Networks and individual school networks, it's easy to think that Notre Dame would be interested in their own network.
I could even argue that a Notre Dame Network might be more valuable than Texas' Longhorn Network. Texas is getting $300 million over 20 years for this deal. How on earth could Notre Dame get that kind of deal? Well, they could model their channel after BYUtv. It could be a faith-based network that also broadcasts Notre Dame sports. There may be some contract issues to resolve, but I doubt the Big East would turn down a Notre Dame offer to showcase some lesser Big East sports. Plus all the home football games could be on this Network.
The Longhorn Network will be huge in Texas, but outside of the state, no one will care about it and the one football game per year that shows up there. People that can relate to Notre Dame (remember those 70 million Catholics) will create a demand for a Notre Dame Network across the country. If the school teamed up with NBC/Comcast, it could a network running in a year. It might even create interest in Notre Dame athletics for more Catholics who would otherwise not be interested.
Don't like football? Maybe you would prefer Notre Dame hockey or lacrosse or baseball. Getting the school more exposure within a target area could help the University become a better school. With more exposure and popularity, they could then turn around and raise tuition if they become the end-all-be-all University for a young Catholic.
Notre Dame is a brand. And it's a brand that still has value even though the team has struggled. Any conference would take them now because of this brand. But their brand should suffer if they do decide to join a conference. Being unique is what makes Notre Dame valuable.