If the Big Ten had its way, the conference would already have 12 teams. In 1999, it extended an invitation to Notre Dame that was promptly declined. Until the creation of the Big Ten Network, Notre Dame had little reason to join the Big Ten. It had all it could ever want in the name of revenue from its NBC contract. Since 1991, Notre Dame has been the only school to have all of its home football games televised exclusively to a national audience. That provided a financial and recruiting advantage that no other school or conference could compete with. Considering the security that the NBC contract brought Notre Dame and the tremendous value it put on being able to remain an independent, it surprised nobody that Notre Dame refused the Big Ten’s offer.
A lot has changed in 11 years. Notre Dame has ceased being relevant on the field. The Big Ten has created its own network worth a reported $242 million annually, or $22 million per school which dwarfs the $9 million annually that Notre Dame has made from NBC. What hasn’t changed, however, is the Big Ten’s desire for Notre Dame to join the conference. Apparently, Notre Dame’s stance on the matter hasn’t changed either. If the Big Ten is serious about adding a 12th team—and there’s no indication that it’s not—then this might be the last chance for Notre Dame to ever be a part of the Big Ten barring some sort of mega-conference down the road. Everyone versed in college football understands that Notre Dame and the Big Ten are a perfect fit in every measurable way from academics and geographic location to tradition and athletic success. If Notre Dame continues to resist overtures, then the Big Ten needs to make them pay by refusing to play Notre Dame. Notre Dame has what the Big Ten wants but won’t oblige. The Big Ten has what Notre Dame wants and has been far too willing to oblige. If Notre Dame turns down the Big Ten again, there should be major consequences.
By turning down the invitation, Notre Dame essentially says it doesn’t need the Big Ten. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Notre Dame’s contract with NBC is largely based on its attractiveness to national viewers. If nobody watched Notre Dame, then NBC wouldn’t be dishing out money to televise its games. As an independent, Notre Dame relies on conference-affiliated schools to make up the bulk of its schedules. So, other than the rivalries with Navy and Air Force Notre Dame’s NBC contract is almost entirely dependent on its ability to schedule games with schools from BCS conferences that people will watch. NBC isn’t paying Notre Dame a significant amount of money to play cupcakes. Notre Dame understands this so it should come as no surprise that it has turned to the Big Ten more than any other conference to bolster its schedule. Even though Notre Dame refused to join, it has continued to litter its schedule with marquee Big Ten rivals. Notre Dame has played 291 games against the Big Ten. That’s more than the combined number of games it has played against the SEC, Big XII, Pac 10, and ACC.
While Notre Dame has relied more on the Big Ten than it has on any other conference to fill out its schedule, it has also used the Big Ten to fill out its schedule more than any other school has used the Big Ten. The 291 times Notre Dame has played the Big Ten is twice as many as the school with the second most games against the conference—Nebraska—and three times as many as any other school. In fact, that’s more than twice the number of games Penn St. has played against the Big Ten and Penn St. has been in the conference for 16 years.
It seems as though Notre Dame wants to “have its cake and it eat too.” It doesn’t want to join the Big Ten, it just wants to play Big Ten teams and reap the financial benefits that result. Consider the 15 teams that Notre Dame has played the most in its 122-year history. Seven of the top 15 schools are from the Big Ten. Notre Dame has six annual rivalries; three are against the Big Ten. Most Big Ten teams don’t even have three Big Ten rivals. Notre Dame even has dormant Big Ten rivalries including one against Northwestern that predates its rivalry with USC. The 45 games Notre Dame has played against Northwestern are more than the number of games it has played against Michigan.
Notre Dame’s reliance on the Big Ten isn’t a recent phenomenon. It has been consistent since the 1920’s (and even before when the Big Ten was known as the “Western Conference.”) Notre Dame has played at least two Big Ten teams in every season since 1932. It has played at least three Big Ten teams in all but four seasons since 1985. It has played at least four Big Ten teams in a single-season 18 times. Notre Dame even played five Big Ten teams on two different occasions in the 60’s.
Ideally there would be a fair level of “give and take” between the Big Ten and Notre Dame based on their mutual interests but it hasn’t worked out that way. It has been all “take” by Notre Dame and all “give” by the Big Ten. The Big Ten needs to understand that by continuing to play Notre Dame on a regular basis, it is heavily contributing to the very reason that Notre Dame chooses to remain an independent in the first place. Continuing to allow Notre Dame to play Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue right in the middle of Big Ten country is not something the Big Ten should permit. Notre Dame’s recruiting base is in the Midwest. Allowing Notre Dame to showcase its product to the Midwest only hurts the Big Ten’s ability to recruit in the Midwest. If Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue come off the schedule, then Notre Dame will be forced to play teams outside of the region which would benefit the Big Ten. The Big Ten needs to make Notre Dame pay a hefty price for its stubbornness, not feed it free advertising in its own backyard.
The only way to counter Notre Dame’s hardened stance against joining the Big Ten is for the Big Ten to take an equally hardened stance against playing Notre Dame. If they don’t want to join the conference, then they shouldn’t be allowed to benefit from the conference.