Notre Dame’s Brand is Faltering, and the Notre Dame Athletic Department Knows It
Notre Dame has been one of college football’s darlings for decades, seemingly almost since the sport first began in the late 19th century. The Fighting Irish have had 7 Heisman winners, 96 All-Americans, a winning percentage of 73.1%, and claim 11 national titles. The biggest issue with Notre Dame right now is that their last national title was in 1988, before I was old enough to even remember significant moments. Notre Dame’s brand is not necessarily in trouble now, but it is down the line, and Notre Dame knows it.
Notre Dame is still incredibly relevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise doesn’t check ratings or what leads on most college sports shows. While the media does in a way tell you what is important, if the information it provides is wanted by fans the media goes out of business, which means there are clear incentives for the media to cover teams like Notre Dame. Notre Dame has a built-in following. I know many Catholics who support Notre Dame simply because it is a catholic school. Further, and perhaps more importantly, the Fighting Irish are polarizing. The arguments about whether Notre Dame is relevant (a very relative term) continually serve to keep Notre Dame relevant. People tune in to see Notre Dame win, or they tune in to see Notre Dame lose. It is the strong emotions that college football fans in general have for the team that allow it to survive and garner the television money that it does.
Let’s revisit the national championship issue. I for one have never seen Notre Dame win a championship and I wasn’t old enough at the time to be aware of what was happening. High school football stars who are younger than me are more aware of a team that has the stigma of getting in to bowl games that it might not belong in but just is, because IT IS NOTRE DAME YA’LL. The last time the Irish were in a BCS bowl they were trounced by a LSU squad led by JaMarcus Russell. The reality of younger athletes and fans alike view Notre Dame as an underwhelming team that simply gets by on name alone, and with six college football games on at any time the allure of Notre Dame playing begins to be less important to each new batch of college football fans.
Is Notre Dame in trouble at this very instant? Absolutely not, most college football fans are older than 30 and distinctly remember Notre Dame being exceptional, for some of them it was their first few years of following college football, when teams can have the greatest lifelong impact on fandom patterns. The main issue arises in twenty years when there will be a clear disparity in people who care about Notre Dame. Players already have been spurning Notre Dame for other great schools and upstart teams such as my Oregon Ducks have been higher in recruiting rankings than the Fighting Irish.
Don’t get me wrong; there is a lot Notre Dame does well. To Notre Dame’s credit, they have been able to avoid getting too dirty of illegal recruiting and boosters gone wild or academic scandals. They are still not perfect though. Under the Tarnished Dome does a good job describing the program under Lou Holtz. (The characteristics depicted are not unique to Notre Dame, but it is still made clear that Notre Dame will sacrifice long-term sustainability for short-term gains)
Still not convinced Notre Dame is in trouble? Then why would they switch uniforms and wear some crazy alternate for a game that will be on national television? Why would the athletic department move a game to Dublin that will play at a time when most college football fans west of the Mississippi will even watch and then have it compete with College Gameday, a show that has owned the 9-12 AM slot on college football fan’s television sets for years? The answer is because the athletic department knows that the best way to sell fans is through winning, something that seems to require selling out in some way now a days. (Which, bravo to Notre Dame for having standards. I’m serious. Someone needs to in today’s landscape)
The second best alternative to winning on the field is winning the attention market. By playing in Dublin they steal headlines because they are playing their game in some wacky location, with the nearest example being the college basketball game played on an Navy ship last season. With the alternative uniforms they got media attention before the season, and the uniforms probably fall under the “any publicity is good publicity” category because the uniforms were not well received.
One of the first things taught in sports business classes now is if you are marketing a team with a lot of tradition, you don’t mess with the tradition. So it makes no sense to move a game to another country to play in a time zone that eliminates half the country from watching. (Although it may give a good excuse for people to start drinking at 6 am Pacific Time. It’s 5 o’clock somewhere!) It doesn’t make sense either to deviate from the golden helmets that are as closely associated with the school as houndstooth is with Bear Bryant and Alabama.
The only alternative to Notre Dame being scared of it’s diminishing brand is that the people in the Notre Dame athletic department aren’t sure what they’re doing and just following the crowd. I feel confident in saying that people who work in the Notre Dame athletic department know how to market a team and this is not the making of people guessing at what works.
While Notre Dame is well known in the 30 and above crowd as a championship team worthy of attention, they have a very different stigma when asking college football fans under the age of say 24. Recruiting rankings have dropped from past days of glory and the sport of college football has gone to a place that is dirty, a place that Notre Dame doesn’t want to be a part of. Winning is the easiest way to improve any sports brand, and with the lack of winning at Notre Dame the brand is becoming diminished when looking at the long-run, the big picture. You as a fan may not think so, but the smart people who get paid to figure out Notre Dame’s position not only in the current state of football but also in the present, feel that Notre Dame could slide further than they already have.