It's hard to fathom how a school without a conference, who controls their own schedule, and has its own television deal with NBC could be leaving significant television revenue on the table. But, that's exactly what Notre Dame is doing. In light of the monster ratings ABC pulled in Notre Dame's finale versus USC the question changes from "IS scheduling hurting television revenue" to "HOW much is it hurting them?"
At issue here is the fact that Notre Dame by its own choosing, schedules its last game of the year on the road at either Stanford or USC. Going through past schedules and future schedules, those two teams have alternated Notre Dame's last game of the year for quite awhile and into the foreseeable future.
Because Stanford and USC host these season finales, those games fall into the Pac 12's television contracts which means it can air on ABC or potentially Fox.
When Stanford and USC play in South Bend, those games take place earlier in the season and fall under Notre Dame's contract with NBC (who airs ND home games).
It's one of the more interesting quirks in sports television. The bottom line is that late season games with big implications have a much higher value and yield higher ratings than early and mid season games that have similar significance. When NBC airs Notre Dame home games versus Stanford and USC earlier in the year, the ceiling for a big ratings numbers is a lot lower. The finality of the outcome coupled with the growing narrative (like ND going to a title game) is just more compelling for a late November broadcast.
Notre Dame purposely schedules these end of the season trips to the West Coast and it's a tradition with a lot of back story, history, general branding and recruiting purposes serving as motivation.
In a day and age where you have exploding television sports rights deals, ill conceived sports networks popping up, rivalries dissolving due to realignment, and questionable conference expansion, you have to wonder if Notre Dame will continue to sacrifice their season finale every year rather than having it as an asset for themselves and NBC.
Although the value of Notre Dame's season finale fluctuates quite a bit, the possible impact of the National Championship race pumps the value of that game by a good deal and would increase the amount of any television extension going forward.
Think of it this way:
This past game had higher ratings than any ABC regular season game since 2006 and all of the BCS bowls other than the BCS Championship last year.
The Orange Bowl just renewed with ESPN for about $55 million a year while the Sugar Bowl will get about $80 million a year from ESPN.
Given Notre Dame's last game bested ratings for those two games, you could make the case that an undefeated or even 1 loss Notre Dame finale versus a ranked Stanford or USC, could be valued in that same $55 million to $80 million range.
NBC and other bidders would certainly increase the value of Notre Dame's television deal on the mere chance they could catch that lightning in a bottle every handful of years.
Does the value of the west coast finale outweigh the amount of money being on the table? Hard to say, but I'd imagine that coupled with Notre Dame's newly formed relationship with the ACC, the school might begin to revisit their own schedule making in the near future.