Ivan Maisel makes an intriguing argument: that as the focus of college football shifts from regional to national appeal, Notre Dame’s uniquely national status is in the process of being eclipsed.
Once upon a time, Notre Dame served as the gold standard in college football. It was a national program in a regional sport.
“If you lived in this part of the country, you were interested in the SEC, period,” said Roy Kramer, who retired in 2002 after 12 years as Southeastern Conference commissioner and moved to Tennessee. “The only other entity with name recognition was Notre Dame.”
In the 1960s and ’70s, when the NCAA controlled its members’ TV rights and allowed no team to be televised more than two or three times a year, only one school had a nationally syndicated highlights show that ran on Sundays.
“You saw Notre Dame every weekend,” former Fighting Irish coach Tyrone Willingham said. “If they weren’t on the Saturday broadcast, I know, like a lot of kids, I ran home from church at noon to catch Notre Dame highlights.”
In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA could not demand control of a program’s TV rights as a condition of membership. Those rights belong to the schools. Seven years later, in 1991, Notre Dame sold its TV rights to NBC. A school with its own network … that, as it turned out, became just one more game in a sea of Saturday football.
The Supreme Court decision triggered the rise of power among the conferences, which packaged their members’ rights to sell to the TV networks. These days, every team is shown to someone pretty much every week.
Add to that what a college football playoff is doing to shape the arc of the regular season, and it’s hard to avoid a perception of erosion. Or, as Maisel puts it, “Notre Dame no longer stands above the rest. It stands above most.”
That’s reflected in the postseason pot of money.
In the original iteration of the BCS, when the conferences needed Notre Dame to participate to legitimize the format, Notre Dame received a conference-sized payout for making a BCS bowl. For instance, in 2005, the Irish received $14.5 million for playing in the Fiesta Bowl, the same as the Big Ten received and shared among its members for Ohio State being on the other sideline.
But beginning the following year, the Irish received only $4.5 million per BCS gig, along with a guarantee of $1.3 million annually whether they reached a BCS bowl or not. In the College Football Playoff era, Notre Dame received $2.83 million last season. The Power Five conferences split $55 million among their 65 members.
Makes you wonder if the pride of independence is worth the money the school is letting slide.