So Notre Dame has made its move. Mostly.
Word came down last week that the school’s storied athletics programs planned to join the Atlantic Coast Conference in everything the league sponsors except football, which agreed to only five games against ACC opponents per season. The Fighting Irish hold their status as a football independent so dear that they held on to it as tightly as they could, and the ACC was willing to accommodate them.
Good. Now all the other conferences can map out their futures and their strategies to take advantage of that misstep.
No matter how strong and stable a conference is, Notre Dame’s nationwide appeal and identification as the country’s preeminent Catholic university would enhance it.
Thus, as expansion and relocation became a regular thing in recent years, none of the top leagues grew beyond 14 schools, even though that number is unwieldy in regard to scheduling for most sports. Quite simply, none wanted to close themselves off to Notre Dame, which finally has deigned to determine a destination.
However, because of its insistence on maintaining some measure of football freedom, this “expansion” actually weakens the ACC. And it means opportunity for the SEC.
If recent history has shown us anything, it is that inequality among membership creates vulnerability within a conference.
The Big 12 nearly vanished with the departures of Nebraska, Colorado and Texas A&M, each of which went a separate direction. Missouri soon followed A&M to the SEC, where both were welcomed into the football family with matching defeats a little more than a week ago.
Forged from remnants of the Big Eight and Southwest Conferences, that league allowed for financial disparity in favor of Texas and Oklahoma and forced the rest of the members to fend for themselves as best they could. Eventually, most of the more desirable schools had enough and went other places where they could get a fair shake.
More recently, the Big East was confronted with extinction as several long-standing members moved on, and one incoming institution, TCU, never followed through on its promise to join.
Until now, the Big East has been home for Notre Dame’s athletic teams — outside of football, of course. The conference also has a number of schools that don’t compete in football at all, or on lower levels (Georgetown, for example, has a Division III program).
In other words, the Big East has been a mishmash of various universities with vastly different ideas about what is important and why, in terms of athletics.
Again, inequality provided the impetus for instability.
In stark contrast, one of the cornerstones of the SEC’s success and appeal is that its members share equally in all the money generated through conference and national tournaments, as well as the landmark television package with ESPN. Each school gets to set its own budget, of course, but when it comes time to pull from a common pool, each is guaranteed the same amount.
Now the opportunity exists to offer that sort of fairness to schools that currently compete in the ACC, a conference that is about to fall out of balance. Among the more appealing targets are Maryland and Miami, which offer the lure of major media markets. Clemson and Georgia Tech provide the possibility of natural rivals for current members.
All it is going to take is for one or more of those universities to feel that its current league doesn’t treat its members equally, and once Notre Dame officially comes on board, that’s exactly how it will be.
With that comes discontent. Not far behind discontent is departure.
Notre Dame’s insistence on standing firm in regard to its football program all but guarantees someone else is going to be on the move, and there can be no better place to go than the SEC.