Irish always find the pot of gold

Question: Which of these is not like the others?

A) Olympics; B) NFL; C) U.S. Open; D) Notre Dame

Answer: When NBC and Notre Dame renewed their contract to televise home football games in June, NBC’s Dick Ebersol compared Fighting Irish football with A, B and C, claiming all of the above defined the network’s sports.

It’s about branding, and America’s college football brand is Notre Dame. That status entitles it to a presumably bailout-esque broadcast deal. And, like the banks, to less than superior performance -- the team was an anemic 7-6 last year and a near-dead 3-9 in 2007. Notre Dame plays football as a free agent independent of a conference, so it gets the whole broadcast pie, not merely a conference-member slice. Forbes once deemed it the most valuable college football program, worth $101 million with a profit of $45.8 million, but the figures involved in the NBC deal are more secret than the recipe for Coke.

In basketball today, UCLA plays host to Notre Dame, an all-sports-but-football member of the Big East Conference. The Irish (12-9) have a nice little team this season that was ranked nationally at No. 7 in December. But it’s a loser in the Big East sibling rivalry: Four of the conference’s 16 teams this week rank in the top 10, six in the top 20. The Irish, 3-7 in conference play, look up to Big East national No. 1 Connecticut from the purgatory of No. 12. In their own conference.

But even a conference also-ran can be shown the money -- in a unique arrangement among over-the-air TV rights for men’s basketball (where payment typically goes only to the home-team conference), CBS and ABC must grant shares to visiting-team conferences. The lucky leprechauns might lose at Pauley today, but they’ll win, again, at the ATM.

-- Ellen Alperstein