Nov. 17, 2011
By John Heisler
If you've followed University of Notre Dame football fortunes even remotely over the last two decades, you know that Irish home games have been shown on NBC Sports since the 1991 season.
In some ways, those nationally televised events have become a routine part of the Notre Dame football culture during that period. In fact, the most recent five-year extension of the Notre Dame/NBC relationship that covers the 2011-2015 seasons was announced in June 2008 - a month after athletics director Kevin White resigned to go to Duke and a month before Jack Swarbrick came on board as his successor.
However, once Swarbrick arrived on campus late that summer, he realized athletics--and the University as a whole, for that matter--had some challenges ahead in the area of video.
First, there realistically are no video production facilities anywhere on campus--save one Agency ND crew and a similar Notre Dame Sports Properties crew, both of which existed to produce video material for the University's Web sites. Meanwhile, a planned state-of-the art television studio in the DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts never materialized because of budget cuts and the room sits empty.
Second, Swarbrick noted that the University had fallen behind in terms of distribution--in great part due to advances made by major conferences, in particular the creation of the Big Ten Network by the Big Ten Conference.
Notre Dame had added resources to its UND.com video team under the auspices of NDSP--and that group was streaming live as many as 100 Irish home events per school year. However, with former WNDU-TV anchor Jack Nolan qualifying as the lone "talent" on staff, many of the events featured student announcers and production values didn't equate to ESPN-quality offerings.
So Swarbrick established the upsizing of both video production and distribution as an athletics priority--and he convinced the University hierarchy that any athletics advancements made would benefit the University at large. Next, he set about considering the options available to Notre Dame--with the goal of potentially creating some sort of Notre Dame channel (whether the programming came over the air, via cable or broadband) that would expand the University's video offerings.
Purchase equipment, hire staff and do it all yourself? Or, look to partner with outside entities that could help the athletics department accomplish its goals?
For two years, Swarbrick and his staff met with a wide variety of those potential partners as they did their homework. Meanwhile, many of the major conferences, seeing what the Big Ten model had become, looked to create some sort of new video entity for themselves. In particular, the Southeastern Conference partnered with a combination of ESPN and XOS to create a "digital vault" of programming.
Two things happened in 2010-11 to change the equation.
First, Purcell Pavilion, the University's Joyce Center home for basketball and volleyball, which had opened the previous year after a nifty refurbishment, added a new amenity--a center-hung scoreboard with sophisticated video capabilities.
While the absence of video boards in Notre Dame Stadium had left Notre Dame as one of the few major colleges that had not been in the video business, the addition of the Purcell Pavilion boards changed that quickly. Athletics looked to its promotions staff to create game scripts and hired a local independent production company with its own production truck to drive the video to the boards at every basketball and volleyball game.
That process extended even further in 2011-12 with the opening of the Compton Family Ice Arena and the addition of another center-hung scoreboard with video for hockey games. That prompted the athletics department to actually purchase the same production truck it had rented on a nightly basis the previous year.
The second critical change involved the merger between NBC Sports and Comcast--with the knowledge that Notre Dame athletics already had strong relationships with both entities (Comcast is a Team ND corporate partner through NDSP and was selected by the University some years ago to install cable television for the first time in residence halls).
With the merger pending for some months, it made sense to wait to make final decisions on video options until Notre Dame could determine exactly how the changes might affect the University.
In the short term, Irish football has been the most prominent beneficiary. VERSUS (which will become NBC Sports Network on Jan. 1) televised the Irish Blue-Gold spring football game last April and also aired a six-hour St. Patrick's Day special that featured edited versions of three Notre Dame games originally aired on NBC--the '92 Penn State, '93 Florida State and 2005 USC games. The games were supplemented with new interviews with the likes of Lou Holtz and Jerome Bettis.
This fall, VERSUS has carried a half-hour pregame show prior to Notre Dame home football games, as well as a post-game show that includes college football at large but features Notre Dame. Meanwhile, nbcsports.com is carrying live HD streams of Irish home games for the second straight year.
The NBC Sports relationship with the National Hockey League has dovetailed into college hockey that begins on VERSUS/NBC Sports Network in December (Irish games against Boston University in December and Michigan in January are included). Then, beginning in 2013-14 when Notre Dame joins Hockey East, NBC Sports Network expects to carry Irish home hockey games.
Swarbrick continues to talk to Comcast and NBC Sports executives to see if there is interest and potential for an even broader relationship that could include both production and distribution, possibly including the various Comcast regional cable systems.
Meanwhile, Dan Skendzel came on board the athletics administration July 1 as director of digital media, so for the first time Irish athletics has a full-time staffer devoted to this crucial area. The digital media staff also is overseeing web design and video offerings for UND.com (adding the new Irish Connection features), as well as working with the various social media options.
Facebook pages produced by tickets/promotions and media relations have been combined--and another new hire primarily produces content for the football Facebook page. A new video-infused blog titled Irish UNDerground has been added to the front page of UND.com. Two other video production staffers also have been added to create additional content.
Plus, since the NCAA has eliminated printed media guides as permissible recruiting items, the digital versions of those publications--with videos embedded in them on UND.com--have become a much larger priority. More well-defined mobile strategies are yet to come.
"We look at video and see that as a huge priority moving forward," says Skendzel, a Notre Dame graduate who previously worked in the business operations area of the University.
"Part of our challenge is the wide geographic base of our fans and alumni. Whereas something like the Longhorn Network can focus primarily on distribution in the state of Texas, we need to be able to serve smaller pockets of our fan base all over the country and all over the world, for that matter. That makes broadband a more realistic option right now in some ways, simply because producing and distributing all the events and shows we'd like to provide for 26 sports is both complicated and expensive.
"We are continuing to look for more and better ways to accomplish that goal."
Swarbrick, Skendzel and Notre Dame athletics don't have all the answers as yet. In fact, the digital media space for sports seems to change by the hour in terms of the strategies and the players--so even the questions today aren't the same as the ones posed yesterday.
"I think it's safe to say almost all of us are consuming video in ways maybe we never imagined just a few years ago," says Skendzel.
"So it's our job to try to make Notre Dame athletics video available to be viewed on your device of choice, even if that device hasn't even been invented yet."