EDITOR’S NOTE: This Fighting Irish report also appears today in Crain’s Chicago Business, at chicagobusiness.com.
Picture the stereotypical sports pub. It’s dark, windowless and musty. The smell of stale beer smacks your face. The Budweiser neon signs gather cobwebs. A group of regulars huddles at the bar, squabbling over Heisman hopefuls, coaching changes, and recruiting classes.
A question is asked, precipitating a hubbub that causes the other patrons to turn and glare:
Does Notre Dame still matter?
It’s a question college football fans ask every year, and it has become one of the most polarizing subjects within the sport. In the bar, the arguments are emotional. But what if we approached the subject more analytically?
The answer becomes clear: Notre Dame remains relevant—but not necessarily for the right reasons. Here’s why:
First and foremost, and like most issues in college football, it’s all about the money. In its annual list released last December, Forbes ranked Notre Dame as the second-most valuable team in the country, appraising the program’s worth at $112 million. Texas came in at a reported value of $129 million.
The Forbes list determines total value and is based on the financial impact each team has on four different areas. These include the revenue directed toward university programs and spending, the amount of football revenue used to support other athletic programs, distribution of bowl game revenue amongst conference teams and the economic impact of traveling fans to each program’s home games.
Forbes didn’t select the Irish for their performance on the field—a .578 (107-78) winning percentage since 1997 is not the stuff of greatness. Notre Dame’s inclusion is largely attributable to a lucrative television contract with NBC, in which all of the program’s home football games are televised nationally. Worth a reported $15 million per year, the deal is set to expire in 2015.
Because major television networks are throwing obscene amounts of money at powerful football conferences (see the SEC’s 15-year, $2.25 billion deal with ESPN, the Big Ten’s 25-year, $2.8 billion deal with the Big Ten Network and others), Notre Dame is considering a renegotiation with NBC before the deal expires.
The only other team with a similar deal is Texas, with its ESPN-based Longhorn Network, which provides 24-hour coverage of the program. Not coincidentally, Forbes reported Texas’ football-related profit at a staggering $71 million—$18 million more than the next-most profitable program, Penn State. Notre Dame tied for fourth in football profit with $47 million.
Much as coaches copy successful formations and strategies from their counterparts, so do athletic directors mimic their peers’ business decisions. A year ago, Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick proclaimed that a Notre Dame television network would soon emerge. If it does, expect Notre Dame’s value to increase further.
The program also has its wildly popular merchandise to thank for a claim to relevance. Anyone who has been to the Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore on campus on a football Saturday knows the hysteria. Fans are drawn to the store like Cape Buffalo to a watering hole. Available for purchase: ND shot glasses (on a campus that prohibits hard liquor), Fighting Irish dog bowls, sandals, golf club head covers, paperweights, and so much more. For a cool $300, fans can take home an actual Notre Dame Stadium bench seat—which, by the way, is notoriously uncomfortable on the backside.
Thanks to strong online sales as well as gift shop sales, Notre Dame—a relatively small school—is ranked 10th in the Collegiate Licensing Company’s list of top-selling institutions for the third quarter of the fiscal year, ending March 31, 2012.
But money isn’t everything, or so they say in the liberal arts. Media coverage of Notre Dame—on the field or off—demonstrates exactly why the program still matters: Like them or hate them, people talk about the Irish.
Take, for instance, the coverage of Corwin Brown’s recent legal trouble. Brown, a former defensive back at Michigan, played eight seasons in the NFL for the New England Patriots, New York Jets, and Detroit Lions. As a coach, Brown held a number of defensive positions with Virginia, the Jets, Notre Dame, and the Patriots. Last August, Brown was charged with domestic battery, and he recently pleaded guilty.
A quick scan of headlines from major media outlets demonstrates the type of attention Notre Dame typically receives.
From the Associated Press:
From USA TODAY:
From Fox Sports:
Note the omission of Brown’s stints in the NFL. Why? Because editors know Notre Dame grabs headlines and generates traffic.
Those on the other side of the relevancy argument say the program hasn’t contended for a national championship in years. While they are correct in the wake of back-to-back 8-5 seasons, their argument is flawed. For something to be irrelevant, it would cease to be worth mentioning. It would become immaterial. Merely bringing up Notre Dame time and time again nurtures its relevance, as ESPN analyst Joe Schad pointed out:
“@CameronBarnes89: why does ND getting special attention? Haven’t been relevant for years.”/you tweeted b/c they are relevant
— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) July 5, 2012
Aside from the money and media coverage, however, there is one pristine piece of evidence that most clearly illustrates Notre Dame’s place in college football: It’s what the sport’s most powerful figures think of the program.
Major conferences want Notre Dame. It’s why there is an open-ended invitation for the program to join the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC. According to reports, these offers would not necessarily require the inclusion of the football team in the conference, allowing Notre Dame to maintain its football independence.
Want to talk clout? In arguably the most momentous decision in the sport’s recent history, BCS commissioners last month reached consensus on a four-team playoff to decide the college football championship. Notre Dame was a key decision maker. In addition to the BCS commissioners, Swarbrick was one of the administrators who met in Chicago to establish the playoff model, which is set to begin in 2014.
Swarbrick, the lone athletic director in the group of BCS officials, was selected by his peers to make the announcement to the press that a consensus had been reached. Notre Dame will be eligible for the playoff because the formula agreed upon does not punish them for their lack of conference affiliation.
If the Irish are good enough, the conference commissioners want Notre Dame in the playoff, obviously, because they’re Notre Dame. The school is a draw. Still.
…But can it last?
Now for the bad news: Of all of the reasons Notre Dame can claim relevance, none of them have anything to do with football.
A tendency for turnovers in the red zone, an unsettled quarterback situation, and the departure of the program’s all-time leading receiver Michael Floyd to the NFL make 2012 a little dicey.
There is no question the program benefits from a prestigious past filled with tradition and lore. If it weren’t for its history—or the movie “Rudy,” for that matter—many recruits wouldn’t know or care about the Irish. Most of the players in the recruiting class of 2013 were born in 1994—six years after the Irish won their last national championship.
But Notre Dame cannot continue to rely on its tradition. It must contend for national championships, and contend for them soon.
Otherwise, the old-timers at that grungy bar will keep talking, and the argument in favor of Notre Dame’s relevance will be more difficult to make.
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LORENZO REYES is a freelance sports journalist living in Miami, Fla., and a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He is a former reporter for Irish Sports Daily, and his work has also been featured on ESPN.com and MiamiHerald.com. Follow him @Lorenzo_G_Reyes.
STORY ART: Main image made in-house with photo by Bill Haber/AP.