In a move that came out of nowhere, the Big Ten will be adding Notre Dame as a hockey member starting in 2017-18. A few quick thoughts on an otherwise sad day with all that has happened in Belgium:
- This is by far the most surprising move that I’ve seen from the Big Ten (and possibly any conference) ever since I started following conference realignment. The timing of the Maryland/Rutgers expansion was stealthy, but anyone that has followed this blog since 2010 had been tracking those schools as high on the Big Ten candidacy list. Johns Hopkins coming to the Big Ten as an affiliate member was a natural fit academically and in terms of the need to get a 6th lacrosse member to obtain NCAA auto-qualifier status. In contrast, Notre Dame joining the ACC as a non-football member and then placing its hockey program in the extremely strong Hockey East, seemed to be give the Irish everything that it wanted in preserving football independence, membership in strong conferences for its other sports and kowtowing to the segment of its alumni base that wanted to cut off all possible relationships with the Big Ten. Meanwhile, the Big Ten seemed to move on from any possibility of Notre Dame joining the league in any capacity. To see this new arrangement come up is quite remarkable even if it’s just for hockey. Ice hockey could be thawing Big Ten – Notre Dame relations in the way that baseball helped that U.S. – Cuba relations.
- Notre Dame coming into the Big Ten creates a 7-team hockey league, which is unwieldy for scheduling purposes. The discussion naturally is going to turn to which school comes in as #8 and it continues to look like Arizona State. The Big Ten and Sun Devils have been contemplating possible membership for over a year and I discussed it in depth during last season’s NCAA Tournament. Pretty much everything that I stated a year ago still applies today (minus the part where I didn’t believe that Hockey East members like Notre Dame would join the league as associate members), where Arizona State hits a lot of metrics that the Big Ten is looking for at an individual school level with its key Phoenix market location and the league overall seems to open to adding more affiliate schools. Think about MIT joining the Big Ten for rowing or Rice bringing its top level baseball program to the conference. There are a lot more possibilities for academically-aligned schools in the non-revenue sports.
- Hockey fans that might be pushing for a powerhouse hockey program like North Dakota to join the Big Ten are engaging in the classic behavior of thinking like a fan instead of a university president. The academic, market and demographic needs of the conference are completely different than on-the-ice considerations. I’m sure the Big Ten would be very open to the top hockey schools in New England, such as Boston University and/or Boston College, but that is more driven by the league’s interest in the Boston market than competitiveness.
- Speaking of markets, an underrated aspect of this move for the Big Ten is that it finally has a hockey presence in its most important market and alumni home of Chicago. Unfortunately, I don’t have an extra $100 million laying around for me to start-up a new Division I hockey program at Illinois despite it having had one of the most competitive hockey club teams and strongest fan bases for the past two decades. Meanwhile, Northwestern has many other athletic funding priorities in building new facilities, so hockey doesn’t seem to be on the radar. The Big Ten would love to rotate its hockey tournament into the United Center in Chicago to go along with Detroit and Minneapolis/St. Paul, especially with the basketball tournament needing to be outside of Chicago more often with the league’s push into the New York and Washington, DC markets. Note that the 2017 NCAA Frozen Four will be played at the United Center and sponsored by Notre Dame.
- I’m someone that takes Notre Dame at its word that the school will stay independent in football. There is no “forcing” the Irish to join any league and its independence is as much of an institutional identity issue for the school’s alumni as it is a football issue. I don’t see this hockey membership having any correlation with Notre Dame possibly joining the Big Ten as a full-time football member down the road.
- That being said, the bigger picture issue is whether the Big Ten would consider offering Notre Dame a full non-football membership in the manner of the ACC (and the old Big East before them). Notre Dame’s agreement with the ACC ends in 2025, so this is more long-range thinking for the conference. Would the Big Ten offer Notre Dame a deal where it would be a basketball and non-revenue sports member in exchange for, say, 6 football games against B1G opponents each season (compared to the Irish commitment to play 5 ACC opponents per year now)? Previously, I never thought that would even be an option on the table since the Big Ten is as much an “all for one and one for all” league as Notre Dame is an independent school, yet this hockey arrangement legitimately puts that into play. The Big Ten really didn’t care about Notre Dame’s relationship with the old Big East, but the ACC deal with the Irish might have been perceived by Jim Delany and others in Rosemont as much more of a potential threat down the road. This is a huge shift in the Big Ten’s thinking, where there is now a large crack in the league’s decades-long insistence for Notre Dame to be “all in” or “all out”.
The upshot is that this is great for Notre Dame in terms of leverage against both the ACC and Big Ten in the future. The ACC might have gotten a bit cocky with how close it thought it was with Notre Dame over the past couple of years and (at least in some quarters) deluding themselves in thinking that they’ll eventually join as a football member. However, the Irish are now openly stating that they have plenty of options. If Notre Dame could get the Big Ten to budge on hockey membership, it’s no longer a stretch at all that the B1G could eventually make a play for Irish basketball and other non-football sports along with a more robust football scheduling arrangement.
(Image from The Daily Domer)