The moves naturally prompted questions of other potential mergers, and there’s no speculation more widespread than that surrounding the University of Notre Dame.
Dozens of schools—including Army, BYU and UConn—remain independent, but the Fighting Irish stand out as the only real athletic powerhouse without membership in a college sports conference.
All eyes are on the year 2025 for the South Bend, Ind., school, when its $15 million-per-year contract with NBC is set to expire. The partnership, which gives NBC sole television rights to all Notre Dame home football games, began in 1991 and was last extended in 2016. The university is the only school in the country that has its own TV deal.
Despite the annual $15 million it receives, the university fares far worse from a financial angle than it would if it were a member of a Power Five conference. Big Ten schools, for example, receive an annual payout from the conference of anywhere from $40 million to $60 million. The SEC similarly gives its schools roughly $54 million.
“There is no financial advantage to Notre Dame being independent in terms of operations,” Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick told The Athletic in 2019. “It costs us money. We would be much better off all in with the ACC or any Power 5 conference.”
But Swarbrick said it’s not just about the money. “The decisions we make don’t just drive to that question.”
Notre Dame’s position as an independent program with its own TV contract also gives it increased exposure. NBC is required to air a minimum of seven Notre Dame games per season, meaning games that might not otherwise make national television are watched across the country.
Eric Smallwood, president of Apex Marketing Group, said this is an advantage when it comes to sponsorships and branding.
“They’re playing really bad teams and still getting national TV,” Smallwood said. “You look at a preseason game between Michigan and Eastern Michigan, it’s on the Big Ten Network. It’s not on a mainstream network, so not as many people are watching it, the time slot is not the best.”
“From that perspective, it definitely bodes well for those players.”
USC and UCLA are expected to see significantly larger conference payouts from the Big Ten than they currently receive. The Pac-12, which includes, among others, the University of Oregon, the University of Washington and Stanford University, pays out its member-schools roughly $34 million per year.
While Notre Dame stands to gain more financially from joining a Power Five conference, the lure of giving up its independent status largely stops there.
Membership in a Power Five conference brings with it traditions, rivalries and competitive schedules that can make schools more appealing championship contenders.
But Notre Dame has proven it can do all of that on its own. The school’s teams made it to the College Football Playoff in two of the last four years. Every season some of the most elite athletic programs across the country are eager to schedule games against the Fighting Irish.
Still, the money is nothing to scoff at, and speculation on what’s next for the program remains.
The Atlantic Coast Conference is an obvious contender. Notre Dame has a deal committing it to five ACC football games annually through 2036 in exchange for full conference membership for other ND sports.
But with nine schools within 300 miles from South Bend, the Big Ten—and its money—is also on the table.
Notre Dame and the Big Ten could not immediately be reached for comment.