Notre Dame Media History

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Introduction

Notre Dame played their first football game on November 23, 1887. From this first game forward, Notre Dame stood out within the world of college football. They stood out for two primary reasons. First, more seasons than not, they had a winning team.  Notre Dame has won more championships than most other teams, and they have had more Heisman trophy winners than any other team. Second, they are a Catholic school. Although this doesn’t seem like it should have an influence on the popularity of a football team, it made a huge difference, and it is one of the reasons Notre Dame football had such a large fan base, so early in the team’s development. As college athletics grew and began competing in an organized structure, Notre Dame developed a national and eventually global following.  

The Notre Dame Football media history is interesting in its development. This history includes the broadcasting of games on the radio, in theaters, closed-circuit televisions in hotel banquet halls, television, and the internet. Although Notre Dame has an extensive marketing program and strategies that have worked to develop the Notre Dame football brand, the media history of the team will show that the popularity of the team predates most advertising and media broadcasting. Notre Dame football has developed a legendary history, which has allowed them to move beyond the regional fan base enjoyed by most college football teams. Overall, however, the increased ability of Americans to watch Notre Dame Football on television positively affected stadium attendance.

Historical Overview of Media History since 1945

Before delving into the media history since 1945, it is important to look at the early development of Notre Dame Football in order to understand where the team and their fan base was at by 1945. Notre Dame Football’s first big step onto the national stage came in 1913. The team beat the Army team with a “revolutionary use of the forward pass” (“Notre Dame Football” 2006). There were significant press writers from the East Coast at the game, and the news of the game was quickly known across the country (“Notre Dame Football” 2006). Aside from the amazing playing, the team got a surge of followers from the Catholic population. According to Robert Burns, historian and Notre Dame Alum, “American Catholic pride in this single athletic victory was unbounded…in an afternoon the university had acquired intense emotional commitments from a whole generation of Catholic working-class supporters and defenders that would endure for years” (Burns 2000). Catholics all across the country felt loyal to the Notre Dame team, and dutifully followed their games. This became especially true during the 1920s when there was a surge of anti-Catholicism Historian Mark Massa explained the situation best when he wrote, “The national prominence of Knute Rockne’s teams from an obscure and penurious Catholic school in one of the most Protestant state of the Union became a source of both pride and group esteem for millions of American Catholics who never set foot on the campus’ (Massa 2001). These reasons combined with a winning record to made Notre Fame Football famous throughout the country. 

Only a few years later, Notre Dame hired Knute Rockne as the new head coach. Rockne became one of the greatest coaches in college football history. Between 1918 and 1930, he held a 105-12-5 record with six national championships (“Notre Dame Football” 2006). This early success greatly expanded the team’s already massive following. It was during the Rockne years that the team made one of their greatest expansions in their national fan base. “The 1919 team played nine games before a total of 56,500 spectators. The 1929 team played the same number of games with a total attendance of 550,000” (“Notre Dame Football” 2006). Rockne became a football legend because of his tenure at Notre Dame and inspired the 1940 film, Knute Rockne – All America. The film helped promote Notre Dame Football even more. Although not advertising in the traditional context of advertising, the film helped propel the popularity of the team. Whether people loved it or hated it, everyone followed Notre Dame Football; it was an American icon.  The years following the Knute years were filled with many more wins and losses. By then Notre Dame Football had an undeniable following regardless of their record. 

This history of Notre Dame Football is essential to understanding the team’s media history since 1945. It is essential because it helps explain how Notre Dame had developed such a national presence before fans outside the South Bend area could really even watch a Notre Dame game. In 1947, Joe Boland, a former football player, established the Irish Football Network through WSBT on the radio (“Football Game Watches” 2011). Boland was a proud alum of Notre Dame and he worked hard to broaden the radio coverage of games, in part, because of his dedication to the school and the football program. Under Boland’s direction, the radio coverage grew to 190 stations, which included the American Armed Forces Network (“Football Game Watches” 2011). This was significant because the American Armed Forces Network broadcasted globally, which expanded the fan base even farther. Despite Boland’s hard work, Notre Dame accepted a bid from the Mutual Broadcasting System for exclusive rights of the 1956 home season (“Football Game Watches” 2011). Nearly overnight, The Mutual Broadcasting System was able to double the number of radio stations airing Notre Dame Games. This was significant because most people still used radio as their primary source of media. 

As mentioned earlier, the legend of the team was promoted through the mainstream movie inspired by Knute. Americans were big fans of the theater in the first half of the 20th century. Since televisions were not mainstream yet, many people went to the theater for entertainment. Notre Dame game highlights would be shown in movie theaters all across the country, sometimes weeks after the game was actually played (“Football Game Watches” 2011). Fans didn’t find, however, when the game was actually played. They showed up at the theaters to watch the fighting Irish as often as they could. Some of these showings would be of an entire game. For special events, school bands would attend theater showings to play for the fans. Seeing Notre Dame Football at the movie theater added to the appeal of the team and their image. 

The first Notre Dame Football game was televised in 1947. However, not many people actually owned televisions at that time, so it was not widely seen. Despite this, television usage was growing, and the University President, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh and the athletic director, Edward “Moose” Krause wanted to pursue national coverage of the games then (“Football Game Watches” 2011). However, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) got involved in the matter. The NCAA banned “individual deals by member schools” (“Football Game Watches” 2011). This meant that Notre Dame could not pursue an exclusive broadcasting contract with a station. This also limited the number of games that could be broadcasted nationally of any team, including Notre Dame. However, Notre Dame did pursue other options during this time. 

The NCAA did allow a couple provisions to teams wanted to expand their broadcast. For example, they were permitted to broadcast all their games regionally. This allowed them to show games throughout the Michiana Area. Games could be watched at home, but also in backer bars. Most of the bars throughout the Michiana area of Northern Indiana and Southern Michigan played the Notre Dame games. This kept the fans happy and entertained. However, Notre Dame and other universities were not happy with the NCAA regulations regarding television broadcasting, so they worked on getting the regulations overruled. In addition to increased exposure, these broadcasting contracts brought a good deal of money into the programs. 

They were also allowed to provide closed-circuit networks, which were traditionally used to allow students and Notre Dame area residents the ability to watch away games at the home field. Notre Dame set up closed circuit broadcasts of three games to specific hotel ballrooms in nine different cities; Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Rochester, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Washington D.C. (“Football Game Watches” 2011). This lasted until 1984 when the Supreme Court overturned the NCAA’s “stronghold” on national contracts and individual schools. Colleges would now be able to seek out exclusive coverage contracts with specific networks, even those with women at the forefront of sports media. This system brought more money into the football programs. Notre Dame was the first university to sign a broadcasting contract. In 1990, they agreed to give NBC exclusive rights to airing home games for $7.6 million per year. 

Aside from their televised coverage, there was a second film inspired by Notre Dame football. In 1993, the film, Rudy, was released. Rudy was about Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, a kid who managed to play for on the Notre Dame football team despite many obstacles that stood in his way. The film is the classic story of the underdog he ends up winning. The story was heart warming and inspiring. It took viewers back to the days when the Fighting Irish represented all the hard-working Catholic families discussed earlier. The film reaffirmed for fans and viewers why everyone loved Notre Dame football. Similarly, to the 1940 movie about Rockne, Rudy served as free and widespread advertising for the team. Although the University did allow the movie to be filmed on campus, they put no money towards the production of the film. 

Notre Dame football has also been promoted through other media outlets, such as newspapers and magazines. Going back to the early 1900s, Notre Dame football games were written about in newspapers all over the country. This provided game information to all the fans that were unable to watch or listen to the games. Numerous magazines have also done stories on Notre Dame football or some aspect of the team over the years. Like any great team, there are also the haters. The interest point about this is that even when they are attempting to write unfavorably about the team, they are still promoting it because they are provoking the defensive side of every Notre Dame fan that reads the piece. For example, in September 2006, Jonathan Chait, a journalist with the Republic wrote an article attacking the “mythic character of Irish football’ (“Notre Dame Football” 2006). A reader responding in a letter to the editor in the LA Times reprimanding Chait for his article and asserting, “having gone to Michigan, he probably didn’t get much of an education” (“Notre Dame Football” 2006). When something negative is printed about Notre Dame football, inevitably, someone will argue it. 

This past season, Notre Dame football enjoyed a chance to win the National championship for the first time in several years. The University took this opportunity to expand their media interactions even further with their first “institutional message.” Jeremy Pinckert of Explore Media was given the opportunity to produce this message to be aired during the championship game. In this message, Notre Dame students hold candles up in the air in a large “#1” formation. This is done to pay tribute to all the student-athletes, “who achieved a number one ranking both on the filed and in the classroom” (Morgan 2013). This message reminded viewers that Notre Dame cares about the athletes as students and not just football players. This helps to carry on the image Notre Dame wants to project to its fans. Notre Dame University has been criticized for putting football before academics, so it is important for the program to dispel that criticism, so it does not affect sponsorship or ticket sales.

Key Notre Dame Advertisers

Although there are third parties’ consultants involved, the Notre Dame Sponsorship Opportunities are handled through the Athletic Media Relations Office. Brian Hardin, Director of Football Media Relations acts as a liaison between the football program and the media. It is his job to make sure the players, team, and program are presented in a way approved by the University. Hardin’s department also ensures the team is maximizing their opportunities for positive exposure. According to the Athletic Media Relations Office website, “the office strives to enhance publicly and showcase the accomplishments of all Notre Dame student-athletes on the field, in the classroom and within the surrounding community” (“Philosophy” 2013). The sponsorship program is part of this initiative. It works with corporations interesting in being Notre Dame sponsors. There are different sponsorship programs available for national sponsors, regional sponsors, and local sponsors. 

National sponsors obviously have the most coverage area. In return for their sponsorship, these corporations receive promotional rights online, in print, at events, and more. They also receive “official” designation, category exclusivity, tickets and corporate hospitality at events, national advertising through NBC, and national advertising through Notre Dame’s online sports network (“Sponsorship Opportunities” 2013). National sponsors include Adidas, Coca-Cola, Xerox, McDonald’s Spring, and Gatorade. Each of these companies has signed exclusivity contracts. This means that Notre Dame will not sign sponsorship agreements with any other national corporation within these industries. For example, as long as Coca-Cola is a sponsor of Notre Dame, they will not accept sponsorship from Pepsi. 

Sponsors at the regional level are referred to as regional marketing partners. Regional Marketing Partners receive regional promotional rights, full page advertisements in game day programs, tickets and hospitality at games, and an exclusivity agreement with the ability to promote the partnership with Notre Dame throughout the regional area (“Sponsorship opportunities” 2013). Regional sponsors include Meijer, Bank of America, UPS, Ford, and SiriusXM. These agreements benefit both Notre dame and the corporation. Notre Dame is widely considered one of the most recognizable brands in college sports. The global fan base includes 211 national alumni clubs and 42 international alumni clubs (“Sponsorship Opportunities” 2013). There are also sponsorship opportunities to companies local to the South Bend area. These local sponsors basically get promotional rights and tickets to games. Although many are loyal sponsors, they aren’t exactly “key” sponsors from a financial and branding standpoint. These sponsors include Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center, O’Rourke’s Public House, and South Bend Orthopedics (“Sponsorship Opportunities” 2013). 

Stadium Attendance

Stadium attendance at Notre Dame has been strong since the stadium was built. Although the overall media attention has clearly boosted stadium attendance, there is no one sponsor or outlet that has made the difference. Notre Dame’s stadium was first built in 1930. From 1930 till the 1997 stadium expansion, the stadium could hold 59,075 fans; since the 1997 expansion, the stadium can hold 80,795 fans (Facts & Stats 2013). According to the Department of Development (2013), the 1997 expansion added 26 rows, 21,720 seats, and a new three-level press box, which included 330 workstations, three television broadcast booths, and five radio station broadcast booths. As quickly as the new expanded stadium opened, the seats sold out. The new press box extended the ability of media outlets to report and broadcast the games. Notre Dame Stadium has held an attendance record of 206 consecutive games (“Notre Dame Stadium 2013). This record started in 1966; nearly 20 years after the first televised game. 

Notre Dame’s ability to sell out home games and maintain such a strong fan base is due to their high level of media attention, strong sponsorship, and their aggressive marketing department. Notre Dame has had a unique role in history. However, what has made the team so successful in regard to branding and sales was the school’s recognition they had something unique and their ability to market the team. A prime example of this comes from the 1930s and 40s. Most collegiate football teams at that time, made a deal with one radio station for the exclusive rights to broadcast the football games (“Football Game Watches” 2011). Notre Dame, however, did not. Instead, they allowed any radio station interested to broadcast the games (“Football Game Watches” 2011). This was very forward thinking at the time. While other schools made an immediate profit from their broadcast agreements, Notre Dame sacrificed the immediate profit in exchange for national coverage. Notre Dame Games were broadcasted on radio stations all over the country. Notre Dame Football, being the Catholic football team, already had a national fan base. National broadcasting and stadium subsidies helped to strengthen and expand that fan base. 

Compared to Other Teams

There are certainly other teams that have had better seasons than Notre Dame, and there are other teams that have won more championships than Notre Dame. However, there are no teams that have received higher ratings than Notre Dame Football. Every college football team has its dedicated fan base, and there are plenty of colleges with a football history as long as Notre Dame’s. For example, Notre Dame played their first game against Michigan State, which started a decade’s long rivalry on the field. Specifically, in regard to their media history, Notre Dame was the first in a lot of areas. Their popularity allowed them to lay the groundwork for other teams. Notre Dame football sought out national coverage, and they sought out exclusive contracts. To this day, Notre Dame Football games get the highest ratings. 

The onset of the digital age has enabled many college football teams to seek out national coverage, despite not being able to secure a television contract. Smaller universities and non-Division one school are able to compete for fans. However, they will never have the exposure or level of sponsorship that Notre Dame has attained. Other schools with comparable exposure include Alabama, Ohio State, and Michigan. These teams are Division One, they’ve won championships, and they have a loyal following. Yet none of them have the global following that Notre Dame enjoys. No other school has been able to cannibalize Notre Dame’s fan base or popularity. As described in their history, Notre Dame attracted a large base of fans that have stayed loyal over the decades. In regard to their stadium, Notre Dame had placed 19th in terms of stadium capacity since their expansion. Prior to the expansion, they were ranked 49th, so the expansion upgraded them significantly.

Who owns the rights today?

The exclusive rights to televising Notre Dame Football home games currently belong to NBC. In 1990, NBC signed a $7.6 million-per-year contract for home games, which was unprecedented at this time (Wachter 2012). Although this seemed reasonable at the time, considering the amount of advertising revenue Notre Dame Football brought in, since then the team has been disappointing on the field. Going into the 2012 -2013 season, the team had lost 10 of its last 12 bowl games (Wachter 2012). Many in the media business were questioning whether or not NBC would renew their broadcasting contract with the team. However, in 2008, NBC resigned their broadcasting contract for 15 million per year for home games. This decision was widely criticized. Fortunately for NBC, the team has made the deal worthwhile. 

This past season, Notre Dame Football won back a great deal of viewers by winning the games. On October 27, Notre Dame played Oklahoma and earned a 5.9 Nielson overnight rating; which broke the season record for college football (Watcher 2012). That record was broken again by Notre Dame just four weeks later during the Notre Dame and USC game (Watcher 2012). NBC’s current contract extends through the 2015 season. At that point, it can again be renegotiated. If Notre Dame Football continues to win, their broadcasting contract will be worth considerably more that 15 million per year. Additionally, with more games streaming live over the internet, there will likely be more to consider in future broadcasting contracts. NBC has been working hard to rebuild their sports division, which is currently very meager with the exception of the Notre Dame contract. Notre Dame’s other sports teams are joining the ACC. If Notre Dame football follows suit, that would mean a possible contract with ESPN at $17.1 million per year (wachter 2012). College sports is a big business and broadcasting rights are a significant part of that business. 

Conclusion

Notre Dame Football is one of the most legendary teams in college sports. Their following is global and multi-generational. The media has helped to make Notre Dame Football what it is today, but media can not be given all the credit. Notre Dame cornered a niche in the sports fans market. They started with a faithful following of Catholic football fans across the country. They proved themselves as a team and gained an even greater following. In the 1940s, they were being broadcasted across the globe. Media broadcasts has enabled Notre Dame to creation and retain their fan base outside the US. No college football team has accomplished greater popularity or legendary status as Notre Dame. They have traditionally received the highest television ratings, the most sell out games, and the greatest revenue of any team. 

Another important indicator of their success as a sport’s program is their ability to sell tickets. They have proven this by setting one of the longest records for consecutively sold out games. What makes this record even more impressive is knowing the stadium expanded during this period of time, they were still able to sell out the games. The team’s history with the various media outlets have enabled them to build and maintain their image and their brand. Having the games televised around the world has been greatly beneficial to the team and the overall program. 

Part of their success can be attributed to their marketing department, which has worked hard to create the Notre Dame brand. Notre Dame apparel can be purchased anywhere in the country and beyond. The Notre Dame name, logo, and mascot can be found on all sorts of products due to the massive and widespread sponsoring program. The team has corporate sponsors at the national, regional, and local level. Many of the national sponsors actually span globally, such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. Although it is clear that winning games increases their following, it is also clear that Notre Dame Football has a strong and dedicated fan base that will buy season tickets or watch every game on television no matter how they play. Notre Dame football’s following has expanded greatly since television broadcasting of the games, but it was enormous prior to that.

References

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Massa, M. S. (1999). Catholics and American culture: Fulton Sheen, Dorothy Day, and the Notre Dame football team. New York: Crossroad Pub. Co.

Morgan, M. (n.d.). Chicagoans’ work glows in Notre Dame’s BCS spot | Chicago film, commercials, advertising, video, production, post, tech news from ReelChicago.com. Chicago film, commercials, advertising, video, production, post, tech news from ReelChicago.com. Retrieved February 24, 2013, from http://reelchicago.com/article/chicagoans-work-glows-notre-dame-s-bcs-spot130106

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Wachter, P. (n.d.). Notre Dame Football and NBC: BFF Again - Businessweek. Businessweek - Business News, Stock market & Financial Advice. Retrieved February 24, 2013, from http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-11-29/notre-dame-football-and-nbc-bff-again