- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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Notre Dame gave the strongest indication yet that it will retain its independence in football -- for at least another seven seasons.
The Fighting Irish and NBC Sports announced Thursday that they would extend their partnership of broadcasting at least six Notre Dame home games each year from 2006 through 2010.
The extension marks the fourth time NBC has extended its deal since its first five-year agreement with the university was signed in 1991. Terms of the new extension were not disclosed, but it is believed that it is commensurate with the current deal that pays the school approximately $9 million per season.
"Every time we get to the middle of our contract, we sit down and discuss things," NBC Sports president Ken Schanzer told ESPN.com. "We both wanted to make this deal. We've had an extraordinary relationship with them from the deal's inception through today, and each of our goals have been realized to this point."
It is not known whether the television deal will guarantee Notre Dame's independence in football, but that's a very strong likelihood. Although university officials did not immediately return calls seeking comment, Schanzer said the Irish's football schedule is secured through 2010.
NBC is scheduled to broadcast Notre Dame's games against Michigan, Washington, Purdue, Stanford, Boston College and Pittsburgh next season.
The extension comes at a tough point in Notre Dame football history. The Irish went 5-7 last season, and the six telecasts averaged an audience of 2.63 million households, according to Nielsen Media Research. That mark was second-worst in the 13-year history of the partnership, lagging only behind the 2001 season, in which Notre Dame went 5-6.
Although the Irish were 10-3 in 2002, they have had three losing seasons in the last five. The program has finished under .500 only 12 times in more than a century of football.
"We really like being in business with Notre Dame," Schanzer said. "The school has an aura and luster that makes it appealing for us and the rest of the commercial world to want to have an association with them."
Since 2000, the number of people that calls itself Notre Dame fans in the United States also has dropped steadily each year, according to an ESPN Sports poll. In 2000, 7.1 percent of the U.S. population said it cheered for the Irish. That number, as of September, dropped to 6.3 percent, according to the poll. New England experienced the greatest decline in interest for the team in that four-year period -- from 17.2 percent to 10.3 percent.
"We have enormous confidence that this program is going to succeed," Schanzer said. "The biggest difficulty Notre Dame has is navigating through an incredibly tough schedule. It is great that they have great matchups, but it's even better when they are successful."
Thanks in part to the television deal and a fan base that remains large compared with other programs, the Irish hold the record for most consecutive games (136) on national television.
"The ability to have our home football games telecast on a national basis becomes a tremendous vehicle for us in maintaining a national visibility and platform in terms of our football program's profile and recruiting," Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White said in a statement.
The money from the television deal does not solely go into the coffers of the school's athletic department; most of it has been earmarked for scholarships. Since the fund began in 1991, 1,263 undergraduates at the school have received more than $12.6 million in financial support.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com.