The University of Notre Dame -- long courted by leagues seeking to benefit from its football riches -- will join the Atlantic Coast Conference in all sports but football, the ACC announced Wednesday, potentially calming the frantic realignment of the past couple of years in which Notre Dame was sought by both the ACC and the Big Ten Conference.
The university, whose rabid national fan base has for 20-plus years earned it its own television contract with NBC, will play five football games each year against other ACC teams, but beyond that will retain its ability as an independent power to schedule anyone its officials please (and will probably use those slots to maintain its traditional rivalry games). But the move from the shrinking Big East will broaden Notre Dame’s access to postseason competition. As a non-football member, Notre Dame will be ineligible for the Orange Bowl spot reserved for an ACC team under a four-team playoff approved earlier this year, but it could meet the ACC champion if it finishes high enough in the rankings, and will also be eligible for the ACC's non-Bowl Championship Series game slots.
The move boosts ACC membership to 15 institutions. Notre Dame follows the University of Pittsburgh and Syracuse University, who left the Big East for the ACC last year. The Big East has lost six programs to the ACC since the conference’s expansion began.
In addition to accepting Notre Dame on Wednesday, the ACC Council of Presidents increased the conference's exit fees from about $20 million to three times the conference’s annual operating budget -- that amounts to more than $50 million. That fee is likely to deter movement out of the ACC, and ACC Commissioner John Swofford said Wednesday that the conference is not looking to expand further.
In many respects, the Big Ten would have been a better fit for Notre Dame: the member institutions are closer geographically and fit the academically prestigious profile of Notre Dame, and the conference has been courting the university for years. Notre Dame first expressed interest in joining the conference in 1999. However, the Big Ten would not allow Notre Dame to join as only a partial member. With its football program’s independent status, the university reaps the full financial benefits of its lucrative and individualized television contract, rather than having to share the money with other conference members as most institutions do.
Notre Dame's vice president and director of athletics, Jack Swarbrick, said in a statement that the move was “the best course of action for us.”
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany issued a statement to ESPN.com Wednesday saying the move “was not a surprise.” He added, “The announcement by the ACC is further indication that the tectonic plates underlying conference affiliation are still warm. As always, we will continue to monitor the landscape.”