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Notre Dame Scores for NBC

The Fighting Irish are back in form -- and that gives the network reason to cheer the unique $45 million deal it struck with the team

Notre Dame hasn't won a college football national title since the hot-blooded Lou Holtz paced the sidelines for the Fighting Irish in 1988. Three years later, NBC signed an unprecedented deal with the team that turned many heads in network TV circles: NBC would broadcast all six Irish home games each fall, making Notre Dame the only college team with such a commitment from a major network. The contract has been renewed twice since 1991, and it's in the second season of a five-year deal that obligates NBC to pay the school $45 million, or about $1.5 million per game (see BW Online, 11/08/02, "NBC Sports' New TV Game Plan").

The risk in making such a commitment with "God's team," as supporters of the predominantly Catholic school like to call it, is that it's basically an act of faith. As NBC Sports President Ken Schanzer notes, "Notre Dame football is special. It has a national constituency." And yet, advertisers and even diehard fans can be turned off by losing seasons, such as the supposedly invincible Irish had in 1999 and 2001.

During former head coach Bob Davie's tenure from 1997 to 2001, Notre Dame's record was a decidedly mortal 35 wins and 25 losses -- and the team hasn't finished in the Top 10 since 1993. An unusual three of the last five seasons, it failed to make a major bowl game. Say what you want about Notre Dame's storied past, but NBC has been paying a lot for mediocrity.

Until this year. New coach Tyrone Willingham has the Irish back on track, with an 8-1 record (the only setback being an unexpected 14-7 loss to Boston College on Nov. 2). Notre Dame's most vocal cheerleaders have included the normally restrained New York Times. Until the Boston College loss, the paper's computer rankings placed the Irish ahead of last season's champion, the still undefeated Miami Hurricanes. Notre Dame's TV ratings are up, and advertisers are swarming NBC, which is benefiting more than ever from -- why not say it? -- the luck of the Irish.

PRIDE OF THE PEACOCK.

  Just how far that luck will carry the team this year remains to be seen. At best, Notre Dame could still end up in the hunt for the national championship if two of the three remaining undefeated teams -- Oklahoma, Miami, and Ohio State -- lose in the coming weeks. At worst, Notre Dame could lose again -- perhaps to Southern Cal in Los Angeles on Nov. 30. Either way, this year's 8-0 start, and two more likely victories over Navy and Rutgers, will probably make this season Notre Dame's best since 1993, when it finished 11-1.

That kind of season is exactly what NBC Sports needs. Since the network walked away from its tremendously expensive National Football League contract several years ago, Notre Dame has been its lone football franchise -- and, in recent years, not a very powerful one. The Irish had a 5-6 record in 2001, two years after finishing 5-7 in its worst season since 1963.

At the end of last season, head coach Bob Davie resigned and was replaced by George O'Leary -- who resigned in disgrace five days later, after admitting that his resume wasn't entirely accurate. (It said O'Leary had earned a master's in education and a varsity letter playing college football when, in fact, he hadn't earned either.) In many ways, it was a new low point for Notre Dame football.

Fast forward to this season. As if a Higher Power had intervened, Notre Dame started the year reinvigorated -- and advertisers took notice. With Willingham calling the shots, the Irish crushed Maryland, then outscored Purdue by a touchdown, and managed a thrilling 25-23 upset over Michigan. Four days later, security-services outfit ADT announced a major advertising pact with NBC to sponsor Notre Dame's Oct. 5 home game against Stanford (which the Irish won 31-7), as well as next season's home game vs. Florida State on Nov. 1.

STRONG NUMBERS.

  "ADT is proud to associate itself with Notre Dame football," says company President Mike Snyder. Adds a spokeswoman for wireless-communications outfit Nextel (NXTL ), which also began sponsoring Notre Dame football this year: "Notre Dame is a hallmark name in football, and many of the team's viewers and fans are the business decisionmakers that we're hoping to reach."

One thing that attracts such advertisers is a bigger TV audience. According to Nielsen Media Research, ratings for Notre Dame games on NBC are up 36% vs. a year ago. The Michigan game on Sept. 14 was the highest-rated Notre Dame telecast since the September 9, 2000, Nebraska game, with almost 5 million fans tuned in.

Even other networks are enjoying the benefits of Notre Dame's surprisingly strong season. ABC's telecast of Notre Dame's 34-24 victory over Florida State in Tallahassee on Oct. 26 grabbed a 5.5 rating -- making it college football's highest-rated single-game telecast of the year.

POT O' GOLD.

  "Including the Boston College game, we've had 120 consecutive games televised on one of the four major sports networks -- NBC, ABC, CBS, and ESPN," says Notre Dame Associate Athletic Director John Heisler. Indeed, even this year's Oct. 19 Notre Dame-Air Force game on ESPN grabbed a 4.1 rating -- the highest-rated regular-season college football game on ESPN since 1999, according to Nielson.

NBC's Schanzer says the real bonanza from Notre Dame will come prior to next year's season, when NBC sells advertisers its fall lineup. If the team stays in contention for a national title this year, he adds, "next year could be good for us." Luck of the Irish notwithstanding, Notre Dame has been a good bet.

By David Shook in New York

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