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What Notre Dame's athletic director shakeup means for college sports

Eric Prisbellby:Eric Prisbell06/08/23


The news that Pete Bevacqua, chairman of NBC Sports Group, will succeed Jack Swarbrick as Notre Dame‘s athletic director in 2024 is consequential for the broader college athletics world on two fronts:

It raises the question of whether the change in leadership will hasten Notre Dame football’s move, at long last, to a Power 5 conference, most likely the Big Ten, triggering another realignment domino effect.
With Fighting Irish alumnus Bevacqua’s ties to rights partner NBC, two TV industry sources told On3 on Thursday to expect the Irish’s relationship with the network to only grow stronger. But one cautioned, because of the sheer amount of money flowing to the Big Ten over the next media cycle, it remains an open question whether Notre Dame will have a wandering eye.

Secondly, handing Bevacqua the keys to one of the nation’s premier athletic departments underscores the importance in this dynamic era of appointing leadership – either at the conference or top athletic program level – with a pedigree heavy in the TV and innovation spaces. It hammers home the value of forward-thinking expertise in a fast-evolving age in which viewing habits and the streaming world are radically reshaping the business landscape.

When it comes to conference realignment, Notre Dame is always the big fish in the pond regardless of the other fish in the pond. And with national brands like Texas and Oklahoma (SEC bound in 2024) and USC (Big Ten bound in ’24) off the board, the attractiveness of the Fighting Irish is even more pronounced.

As the Pac-12 looks to stabilize and the Big 12 eyes expansion to reach all four time zones, is the Big Ten poised to bolster an already robust league by finally planting its flag in South Bend, Indiana? Adding the likes of Oregon and Washington to the Big Ten would involve a calculus to determine if the league would in fact grow the media rights pie enough to warrant their inclusion. However, a potential addition of the Irish would be a no-brainer. 

Notre Dame’s relationship with valued partner NBC remains strong, sources in the TV industry said. Most importantly, they added, it is expected to only strengthen with Bevacqua moving to the athletic director’s chair next year. 

“This is a logical assumption,” one TV source said Thursday. “The other thing Notre Dame’s deal with NBC provides is the ability to play home games when it wants — 2:30 or 3:30 ET. In a conference, it would be difficult for them to force that issue.  That has real value to them.”

Will Notre Dame ‘chase’ more lucrative option?

In 2013, NBC Sports Group announced a 10-year contract extension to televise Irish football games. That extension began in 2016 and will run through the 2025 season. Notre Dame has some time before returning to the negotiating table with a partner that has been televising Notre Dame for 30-plus years. The current deal pays Notre Dame some $22 million annually, a source said, adding that the school’s target for renewal in 2025 and beyond is $75 million plus per year.

Another TV source said, “Bottom line, I believe it strengthens the bond, but the amount of money flowing to the Big Ten and SEC over the next media cycle means that it is more likely that Notre Dame chases the option that provides the highest [price point], rather than keeping their relationship alive at a discount. It’s all about being able to stay competitive with the top programs.”

Sports Illustrated first reported the news. Bevacqua told Pat Forde, “It has been an unbelievable, mutually beneficial relationship for both entities. I have a strong suspicion that both Notre Dame and NBC would love to see that going forward well into the future.”

NBC, of course, has a major hand in the Big Ten’s future. It was Bevacqua himself last August who said the Big Ten’s massive media rights deal with NBC, CBS and Fox is highlighted by “Big Ten Saturday Night” on NBC. That begins this fall. The Big Ten’s deal also includes eight additional football games each season on Peacock, NBC’s online subscription service. 

Bevacqua also told SI that he is a “fan of independence, for sure,” adding that it is “another element of what makes Notre Dame different. I think those differentiators for Notre Dame are more important and more valuable today than they’ve ever been.”

A move toward non-traditional hires

Appointing Bevacqua represents the latest non-traditional hire by a conference or major athletic department. Two years ago, the Pac-12 hired George Kliavkoff, whose resume includes MLB, NBCUniversal, Hulu and most recently MGM Resorts International. Last August, the Big 12 filled its commissioner role with Brett Yormark, who has had stops at Palace Sports & Entertainment, Katz Sports, Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment and Roc Nation. And the Big Ten last month hired Tony Petitti, whose career includes roles at CBS, MLB and Activation Blizzard.

Understanding the ever-changing media landscape and securing lucrative media rights packages that position leagues well for the future is a top priority for commissioners (and athletic department leaders). And the landscape perhaps has never been more challenging to forecast, for college sports leaders and network executives alike. 

In a recent call with On3, Neal Pilson, the former longtime president of CBS Sports, reflected on how dramatically the media rights landscape has transformed since he entered the industry decades ago, when just three networks ruled the ecosystem and jousted over live sports rights.

“All you had to worry about were the other two guys – and it was still a very tough business,” Pilson said. “You had a third of the audience, and you were always worried and concerned that the other guys were going to take your property.

“We thought it was tough then. But it’s almost impossible now.”