Like most ACC officials, including commissioner John Swofford, Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage dismissed notions last year of Notre Dame joining the conference for all sports except football.
Much has transpired since, most significantly further conference realignment and the adoption of a four-team football playoff starting in 2014. So personal reservations about partial membership aside, Littlepage knows “this kind of discussion has to take place.”
Notre Dame, “is a powerful brand,” Littlepage said via email Wednesday. “Any conference would want to consider their potential value (all in, or partial membership).”
Littlepage’s email confirmed my interpretation of Swofford’s tone Sunday at the ACC’s preseason football gathering. There Swofford, entering his 16th year as commissioner, appeared to ease his hard line on partial membership.
But as well as Notre Dame’s basketball, Olympic sports and academic status mesh with the ACC, inviting the Fighting Irish without their historically independent football program is complex on many levels.
The ACC has never had a partial member, and even if Notre Dame agreed to play 4-6 annual football games against conference teams, projecting potential value and dividing actual revenue would fry many a laptop.
And at day’s end, no matter the secondary considerations, the primary calculation is money. Would such an arrangement — the Irish are in no hurry to forgo football independence — enrich all parties?
Littlepage isn’t sure, and he stressed that “I can only give my own opinions and not those of anyone else at UVA or the ACC. My comments do not necessarily reflect how I might vote as an AD or how UVA might vote if any discussions came to that point.”
Virginia Tech athletic director Jim Weaver declined to comment.
“What is the added value to the ACC of having [Notre Dame] sports other than football?” Littlepage continued. “Do the other … ND sports being in the ACC enhance the ACC brand and prestige to the extent that we all benefit collectively? I don't have that answer yet.
“Finally there are a variety of financial questions about potential revenue and how it would be shared. Unequal sharing of revenues within conferences has been a facilitating factor in some of the expansion moves we've seen already. Needless to say, there are a number of very important topics that would have to be considered.”
Indeed, skewed revenue distribution nearly doomed the Big 12 — the league lost Colorado to the Pacific 12, Nebraska to the Big Ten and Missouri and Texas A&M to the Southeastern Conference before regaining traction with the additions of West Virginia and Texas Christian. Similarly, revenue concerns helped drive Virginia Tech, Miami, Boston College, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, West Virginia and TCU from the Big East.
Looking to further stabilize, the Big 12 has made overtures to Notre Dame. The school’s coaches, however, would much prefer the ACC’s Eastern markets.
Notre Dame is a partial Big East member, but the conference has fractured and again is searching for a new commissioner. Moreover, the future arrivals of Houston, Southern Methodist and Central Florida don’t necessarily jazz the Irish.
No matter its affiliation, Notre Dame has quality programs in basketball, lacrosse, tennis, golf, soccer, swimming, fencing and cross country. In the 19-year history of the Directors’ Cup all-sports standings, the Irish have never finished below 31st — their best was sixth in 2005-06.
Some officials believe a few years of partial ACC membership would convince Notre Dame to go all-in, but the Big East thought that, too.
“There is no question that ND is a great academic institution with a fantastic, comprehensive sports program,” Littlepage wrote. “It would take some convincing, however, for me to believe that having only a portion of ND athletics is best for the ACC at this point in time.
“I know there are benefits to expanding the footprint of the ACC in terms of potential media exposure, alumni penetration, and what better institution is there to help accomplish that? At the same time, expanding the footprint brings additional travel in all sports other than football (lost class time, greater expense, physical wear-and-tear, and potentially more travel hurdles for families other than those in the midwest); unlike football, much of the travel is during the week.”
Translation: Notre Dame joining the ACC in any capacity is not imminent. But there’s no denying the concept is percolating.
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