What is the best way for Notre Dame to stay independent in football?
The short and easy answer to that question is simply by winning more games.
Becoming a consistent winner, being ranked on a regular basis, playing and beating top teams, and contending for national titles would erase just about every doubt that Notre Dame will have to join a conference sometime in the near or distant future.
This is beyond obvious.
New head coach Brian Kelly is now at the helm trying to fix this lack of winning, and he will certainly play an important role in shaping the Notre Dame program in this new century, while his tenure will also have deep and lasting implications for the future of the Irish football.
But besides the obvious need to win and compete at a higher level, there is something else that the Fighting Irish can do to secure their long-term independence and viability as a major force in college athletics.
That is to create a Notre Dame television channel.
You may retort, “Notre Dame already has its own channel with NBC.”
Well, not really.
NBC has televised every Notre Dame home game for the last 18 years, but that is a far cry from saying the Irish have their own channel.
The meager 40 hours of programming a year that NBC currently offers is nothing compared to what an entire channel devoted to Notre Dame football and all its athletic teams could provide.
No doubt a Notre Dame channel would be immensely popular among the Irish faithful, but the real question is, could it work?
Would it be feasible?
Is it a venture that could turn a profit?
The biggest obstacle that would prevent a Notre Dame Network from seeing the light of day is that there are fans in Illinois.
And New York.
You get the point.
Unlike the proposed Texas Longhorns Network, which would be available and viable within the confines of a small but densely populated region, Notre Dame would have to attempt to get its channel in nearly every market of the country.
That’s no small task, even for a brand as nationally recognized as Notre Dame.
Negotiating with multiple cable providers all across the United States could be a logistical nightmare, but the rewards and benefits from such a channel could be more significant than the original NBC deal that was struck in 1991.
With all of the jostling and plans for the future being thrown out there by other programs and conferences, this is something that Notre Dame definitely needs to take a serious look into.
Luckily, there is a blueprint that has already been established from which the school may be able to expand its horizons in the future: Notre Dame ON DEMAND
Launched just before the 2007 football season, Notre Dame ON DEMAND was made available for free in Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois, offering the perfect mix of programming that an official school channel could build from, including:
Coverage of press conferences, player and coach interviews, coverage of all 26 Irish sports, football coach weekly and post-game press conferences, football practice reports, special reports and analysis by Jack Nolan, Mirko Jurkovic, and Reggie Brooks, pre-game shows, post-game radio shows, coverage of pep rallies, and more.
Apparently, since 2007 Notre Dame ON DEMAND has also been made available in the “local” sections of other cable subscribers from states outside of the original intended Midwest region, further broadening the reach of this new Fighting Irish athletics media.
Interestingly, the provider that is working in connection with the University of Notre Dame to offer this package is the growing business giant Comcast, also known as the largest cable operator and Internet provider in the United States.
At no cost to current Comcast customers, Notre Dame ON DEMAND adds programs on a weekly basis that can be accessed at any time and watched just like Time Warner customers like me can do with Saturday Night Live and other shows.
Further, pending government approval, Comcast is about to buy a majority stock in NBC Universal and control a whole bevy of television channels and media outlets.
Channels such as NBC, USA, CNBC, MSNBC, A&E, History Channel, E!, Golf Channel, Weather Channel, Biography, Lifetime, Versus, and Bravo will all be under Comcast’s control.
There has been a lot of concern and trepidation that Comcast’s takeover of NBC threatens Notre Dame’s current relationship and home game contract with the Peacock Network and that the overall low ratings of Irish games spell disaster for future negotiations.
But should there be that much concern?
Comcast has more power and certainly seems to be a much more adept business enterprise than NBC Universal. It was also Comcast, not NBC, which started offering free Irish athletics programming through Notre Dame ON DEMAND.
What has NBC offered over nearly 20 years of the partnership?
Mediocre game-day coverage?
Unenthusiastic and pitiable play-by-play and color commentary?
A Notre Dame Central iPhone app, now for a new low price of $1.99?
At the risk of sounding spoiled, the NBC contract has been pleasant enough, but it has been like eating gritty strip steak when we could be eating filet mignon.
Plus, it’s not like NBC will be totally shut out of the picture, as they will still own 49 percent of the media conglomerate. As disappointing as certain aspects of NBC’s coverage have been, they have been incredibly supportive of Notre Dame through these lean years, and it appears Comcast is of the same opinion.
Therefore, combining NBC and Comcast looks to be a good sign for the Fighting Irish.
Still, even though Notre Dame’s football team could be much better, there is no doubt that so should the television access and entertainment.
Now, the biggest question going forward concerns the live broadcast of the actual Notre Dame football games and how the school having a national following is just as much of a hindrance as a blessing for fans.
Or to put it another way, what is going to happen with Fighting Irish road games in the future?
It is true that almost every Notre Dame road game is broadcast by either ABC, ESPN, or CBS, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be able to be watched by someone in Seattle or Boston.
This is especially true when Notre Dame is not winning or is playing a weak opponent. An Irish road game may be broadcast by ESPN, but depending on where you live in the country, you may not be able to watch it.
How often this happens to Notre Dame fans around the country I am not certain.
What I do know is that since the beginning of the 2005 season, I have missed one game and had to scramble at the last minute to watch another. Only two incidents out of 60-plus games isn’t terrible, but it is annoying nonetheless.
In 2007, as one of the worst Notre Dame teams in history limped into a showdown against UCLA in the Rose Bowl, the game was supposed to be on ABC. Owing to such an unimpressive matchup, the game was not televised on ABC, ESPN, or ESPN 2.
Instead, I was shown three different games in my Western New York location that I wanted no part of and missed out on a rare win from that debacle of a 2007 season.
The other incident took place a year earlier, when the Irish traveled to Air Force and the game’s rights were held exclusively by CSTV.
This sent me and my friends in a mad scramble to find someone who had that channel, but luckily we were able to settle for a local bar with a satellite package that offered CSTV.
The point is, all Notre Dame games should be broadcast nationally for everyone to see and not predicated on where you live and subjected to the whims of the ABC family of networks.
Making this happen should be a fundamental and principal goal for the future for Jack Swarbrick and the university.
However, gaining the rights to broadcast Fighting Irish away games will be immensely difficult, if all but impossible in today’s modern financial setup, and stands as a major roadblock to the viability and worth of a possible Notre Dame network.
So what options are available?
Expand Notre Dame ON DEMAND
This seems like an obvious choice, but it still poses many challenges in the effort to expand more Notre Dame media on a truly national scale.
That would mean Comcast would have to continue offering it for its current customers, expand it nationally if they haven’t already, while also negotiating deals for Time Warner, Cox Communications, Charter Communications, Cablevision, Verizon, and satellite companies to carry the channel.
Without live football to televise, Notre Dame ON DEMAND may be the best the school and Comcast have to offer in the near future. Expanding nationwide and charging for a channel that was once free will be very rough waters to navigate, but Notre Dame ON DEMAND could turn out to be the precursor to an official Notre Dame channel on cable systems everywhere.
Link to the Big East
Another idea being thrown out there is having Notre Dame lead the effort in establishing a Big East network, and I think this is a very likely possibility.
First off, the channel would have the power of the nation’s premier basketball conference behind it and would provide an avenue for Notre Dame’s other sports (excluding hockey and fencing) to receive greater media attention.
To top it off, there could be an agreement whereby the channel covers Notre Dame football and provides a handful of Irish-related programs.
Also, by linking itself so closely to the Big East, Notre Dame may be able to save the conference from imploding in the future and perhaps find a way to start owning the rights to and broadcasting Irish football road games.
The Versus Route
There’s been plenty of talk in media circles that Comcast has been wanting to create a legitimate rival to ESPN and that the channel Versus might be the medium through which the cable giant would commence such a battle.
It seems highly unlikely that this would actually happen, but it may persuade Comcast executives to use Notre Dame football as a major player in this experiment.
I do not expect Comcast to move Notre Dame games off NBC and onto Versus anytime soon. Perhaps years down the road and if the program has not been lifted up by Brian Kelly they will decide to make a move, but it doesn’t seem likely any time soon.
Comcast may still use Notre Dame as one of their gem pieces in a rebranding of Versus and could begin broadcasting certain elements of Notre Dame ON DEMAND or create a couple new programs focusing on Irish football though.
Any of those ideas would be welcomed with open arms by almost any Notre Dame fan.
So does Notre Dame have the ability to create its own nationally watched television channel?
Or will we see other possibilities emerge first?
Creating something very similar to the New York Yankees' YES Network would seem to be an ideal situation, but even the Bronx Bombers’ network is not carried to many customers outside of the Tri-State area.
The problems with going nationwide, losing out on the rights to road football games, negotiating with multiple cable and satellite providers, and generating year-round interest make a Notre Dame channel very difficult to establish.
Maybe in the end it will prove impossible, but it is something Notre Dame could profit from and use as a massive bargaining chip in the school’s quest to stay independent on the gridiron.
At the very least, maybe Notre Dame and Comcast’s willingness to seek out new ventures will give the fans more coverage of all things Fighting Irish football.