Notre Dame Fights Its Way From Fumbling Brand Back to Sponsor Gold With Bowl Nod

Recovery Comes Just in Time to Milk the Move Out of Its TV and Merchandise Partnerships, Which Are Soon up for Renewal

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In recent years, Notre Dame football has been No. 1 in tradition and TV deals -- but not on the field.

Forbes may have ranked it second on its list of most-valuable college football teams, with an estimated value of $112 million last December, but there was no escaping the fact that 20 years of mediocre football put it in trouble.

Notre Dame went 12-0 this year, its first perfect season since 1988.
Notre Dame went 12-0 this year, its first perfect season since 1988.

During the off season, NBC commissioned a Harris research study to show advertisers that the Fighting Irish brand still packed a punch after back-to-back 8-and-5 seasons under new coach Brian Kelly. Now, the 12-0 team is No. 1 in the Bowl Championship Series rankings after its first perfect season since 1988, and heading for the BCS National Championship game Jan. 7.

Nothing "turbocharges" a brand like success, noted Allen Adamson, managing director of WPP Group's Landor branding firm. Notre Dame is now poised to attract more TV viewers and advertisers and sell more merchandise than ever before.

"Apple wouldn't be Apple if it wasn't winning in the marketplace. This is a good time to buy Notre Dame stock," Mr. Adamson said. It's also serendipitous timing for the team, as several key partnerships are nearing renewal.

NBC pays Notre Dame an estimated $15 million a year for its regular-season package. Seth Winter, exec VP-marketing for NBC Sports Group, said NBC "absolutely" wants to renew its contract well before it expires after the 2015 season. Look for Notre Dame to jack up NBC's rights fees, as it has in the past.

The network's Notre Dame ad revenue rose 40% this year, said Mr. Winter. Unlike previous seasons, when early losses knocked the Irish out of BCS contention, NBC wrote plenty of business in the scatter market as the unbeaten Irish piled up wins. NBC's creative team did its part by touting the school's "undefeated" record and BCS title chase.

The Fighting Irish are a "unique" property, said Mr. Winter, because they grab upscale viewers across the U.S. Other conferences such as the SEC and Midwest-based Big Ten are still mostly regional in TV appeal, but Notre Dame operates outside a conference.

"They have a tremendous national following. There are people who never went to Notre Dame who still root for them," Mr. Winter said. "Conversely, there are people who love to root against Notre Dame. But people still love to watch Notre Dame football because it's the iconic college football brand."

That didn't prevent a ratings slide, however. And those rooting against Notre Dame began to include analysts and journalists from other networks wondering why such a lousy team deserved any TV contract.

Mr. Winter said the network commissioned the Harris poll "to demonstrate that even though we were coming off a couple of challenging seasons ... it was still a well-respected brand." But the consumer survey would prove almost unnecessary as the Irish made their way to an undefeated season. Notre Dame's TV ratings bounced back. NBC posted its most-watched Notre Dame season in seven years, averaging 4.4 million viewers and a 2.8 rating, up 69% and 67%, respectively, from 2011. Even other networks got a piece of the action. The Irish's 22 -13 win over USC on ABC Saturday Nov. 17 averaged 16 million viewers and a 9.4 rating, making it the fifth-most-watched regular-season game across all networks since 1991.

"Now that we have an undefeated season, an extraordinary performance on the field, where do you go from here?" asked Mr. Winter.

Adidas will also have to answer that question. The athletic company's 10-year, $60 million agreement to outfit the Irish expires after the 2013-2014 season, and it may face competition from Nike and Under Armour. Licensed merchandising sales are taking off: Notre Dame rose to No. 6 in licensed sales this year from No. 10 last year among the 200 schools represented by IMG's Collegiate Licensing Company.

The school's radio/merchandising partners at IMG College are also smiling. The Notre Dame IMG Radio Network expects to double its sponsors from 25 this year to 50 next season, said spokesman Andrew Giangola. Cleared in 90% of the country, national sponsors include MillerCoors, Sears, UPS and Lowe's .

The Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State proved that no college brand is bulletproof, said Forbes Executive Editor Mike Ozanian. But he admired how Notre Dame was still able to negotiate an increase when extending its TV deal with NBC in 2008, even though they fielded an average team.

"That speaks directly to how potent their brand is ," said Mr. Ozanian.

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