Sep 14, 2012

Relatively? Relevant

     On Tuesday, it was announced that Notre will join the ACC as a full-time member as soon as they can negotiate a buy-out with the Big East…That is, they’ll join in all sports except football and hockey.  Shockingly, there’s not been a lot of uproar about ND’s failure to join the non-existent ACC hockey conference.  However, the failure of the ACC to negotiate ND’s full-time inclusion in their football conference has, yet again, sparked the controversy about Notre Dame’s relevance on the national football scene.

            There are very few topics in the World of sports that put ink to paper (or ummm….fingers to keyboards?) as much what Notre Dame means to college football.  A few weeks back, Rick Reilly managed to string together a bunch of hackneyed clichés explaining why Notre Dame was no longer relevant in college football.  I refuse to link specifically to that piece because the amount of original thought that went into writing that article was far less, and not even measureable in entertainment value, to the amount of work needed to create the must see movie of the year, Taken 2  The writers over at Her Loyal Sons wrote the best (or at least my favorite) response to Mr. Reilly’s piece.  With a rare free Friday afternoon, I decided to put my own thoughts out there about Notre Dame’s relevance…or lack thereof.

            Let’s start with the best of the arguments against Notre Dame’s relevance:  Performance on the field.  For the ND haters, they will continue to harp on this one point until such time as Notre Dame returns to a National Championship game and possibly beyond that.  There is no disputing that Notre Dame’s performance on the field over the past 20 years or so does not live up to the legend and lore upon which the program was built.  Yes, Notre Dame did appear in a BCS game of some sort in 2001, 2006, and 2007.  The record for Notre Dame in those games?  0-3.  The cumulative score of those games?  Notre Dame: 43, Opponents:  116.  Notre Dame’s best result?  A 14 point loss to Ohio State in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl.  Quite frankly, any rational Notre Dame fan would have to acknowledge that the Irish did not belong on the same field as their opponents on those occasions.  Many will argue that save Notre Dame’s “undeserved” tie-in to the BCS, they would never have received those spots.  The problem with that theory is that Notre Dame only receives an automatic bid if they finish in the Top 8 at the time of selection.  The only time that happened was the 2006 Fiesta Bowl, which was by far their most competitive game and most deserved appearance.  In both 2001 and 2007, Notre Dame was an at-large selection.  The real story of Notre Dame’s relevancy is explained best by the reason  that in both 2001 and 2007 Notre Dame was selected over other schools to go to one of the BCS bowls.

            People can place a spin on college athletics all they want.  For “minor” sports, most of the clichés are true.  It’s sports in its purest form; it’s the embodiment of the “student athlete,” etc., etc.  However, for college football, and to a lesser extent college basketball, these sports are considerable revenue-generators for a lot of different factions.  Schools, coaches, cities, corporate sponsors, the NCAA, conferences, media outlets all stand to gain a lot by selecting nationally intriguing games.  Notre Dame’s rabid, irrational, loyal-to-a-fault fan base continues to make Notre Dame one of, if not the single most, “safe” bet for scheduling purposes.  The fan base for Notre Dame is an unusual and unique group for several reasons. 

            Unlike most schools, Notre Dame’s fan base is truly national.  This is an argument impossible to win with fans from regional powerhouses.   I live in the land of the SEC.  The number of times I’ve listened to folks from Florida, or Alabama, or Georgia, or South Carolina try to explain why Notre Dame is not as popular as their school could fill up any stadium in the country.  While true that Notre Dame is likely not the most popular school in any State in the entire country, it’s probably the only one that could get itself ranked in the top 10 in popularity in any state (if restricted exclusively to college football fans).  One thing I remind folks in the southeast of all the time is that “USC” might mean the University of South Carolina to them, but west of Mississippi, USC means the University of Southern California.  The same holds true for “UT.”  Go west, and UT means the University of Texas-Austin.  Anywhere you go, ND means Notre Dame…except maybe in North Dakota where the recently dropped "Fighting Sioux" nickname and use of a strikingly familiar monogrammed ND was recently discontinued.  Whether on the west coast, east coast, locally in the Midwest, or  even abroad, Notre Dame’s fans will travel to see this team play.

            Many theories have been posited as to why this is the case.  There is one (though really linked to a second) reason that I find this to be true.  Ask a casual individual where Notre Dame is located, and I’d be willing to guess most couldn’t tell you it was in South Bend, Indiana.  Of those that know it’s in South Bend, even fewer would be able to tell you where South Bend is located within Indiana.  Notre Dame is, quite simply, not associated with regional ties.  Instead, its ties are with the Catholic population.  Notre Dame is hardly unique in this respect.  There are many Jesuit Catholic schools.  There are many protestant affiliated schools as well.  However, only BYU can boast the immediate recognition of school to religious affiliation that Notre Dame can.  For Catholic sports fans, many of whom happen to be of Irish-immigrant descent, the success and pride of watching the small catholic school beat the big boys in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s is as much a tradition as going to church on Sundays.  The haters will claim this is unfair.  Well, it’s equally unfair that USC has a bunch of attractive co-eds, amazing weather, and a location in one of America’s largest cities.  Schools interested in generating money need to know their strengths and exploit them.  If Notre Dame’s is an unhealthy attachment that a significant portion of the population relates to, then kudos to Notre Dame to exploiting that position.  If you think that Al Golden at Miami or Lane Kiffin at USC doesn’t walk into a recruits home and tell them they don’t want to spend it in South Bend if they could spend it in their city, then there’s nothing I can do to change your mind.

            This brings me to the point about Notre Dame’s BCS and television tie-ins.  I hear it all the time: “How come ND gets every home game televised and my team, (fill in the blank), doesn’t even though we’ve been better than them over the past 5 years?”  The answer lies in that fan base.  For NBC, or any other major media power, risk-aversion is part of the game.  When these exclusive television contracts are made, a media power wants to know what they’ll get in return, and Notre Dame is the closest thing to a “sure thing” there is.  Television contracts are extremely expensive and done years in advance.  Until 2008 when Alabama returned to national prominence, their yearly records for the seasons leading up to that had been:  2003: 4-9; 2004: 6-6; 2005:  10-2; 2006:  6-6; 2007: 7-6.  A team even with the fan base and tradition as Alabama had been awful leading up their breakout.  NBC, in order to get the benefit of a 5 year contract to capture the good years would have been banking on a regional power returning to prominence with no indication of that to be forthcoming.  Argue as you may about Notre Dame’s track record during that time, it’s irrational, national fan base makes that nearly a moot point.  Regardless of how the Irish do, their games constantly get rated at or near the top of viewership figures on a weekly basis.  If this upsets you, you can try to explain it to an ND fan, but chances are the same irrationality that keeps them watching week in and week out will keep them from agreeing with your argument.

            It’s also important to remember that it’s not just NBC.  NBC only shows Notre Dame home games.  Yet, virtually all of Notre Dame’s away games also get picked up for regional, if not national coverage by either ESPN, ABC, or CBS.  Why?  Same reason.  These media powerhouses can review the numbers and know that from a viewership guarantee, there’s no safer play.  Sure, the hardcore college football fans might prefer to see an Oklahoma State/Arizona game, but that audience is likely to watch whatever you put on even if it’s not their preference.  The casual sports fan (a market ignored far too often by the diehards) is still more interested in the “irrelevant” Notre Dame squad than Mike Gundy’s uptempo offense.  Go where the money is will always be the mantra of television, news, and radio.  Independent analysis that rejects the anecdotal grumblings of Notre Dame haters will tend to have itineraries that look a lot like the student athletes of the Fighting Irish.

            That gets me back to the reason for this article:  Is Notre Dame relevant?  When everything stated above is taken into account, the answer is a clear:  Relatively?  They’re irrelevant.  Nationally, they’re still an important part of the college football landscape.   Notre Dame has set the bar so high in terms of success that from a national title stand point, they’re irrelevant until they prove otherwise.  As part of ND Nation,  I have to concede this.  At the end of the day, a team will always be judged by on the field impact, and Notre Dame’s has not lived up to the lofty expectations that legends like Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, and Holtz engrained into the Notre Dame culture.  That being said, Notre Dame’s importance to college football cannot be understated.  One reason that our society on whole loves sports is that it ties the past to the present.  Major League Baseball is better when the Yankees are good.  The same holds true for the Lakers and Celtics in the NBA, the Packers, Steelers, and Cowboys in the NFL, the Red Wings in the NHL, and Michigan, Alabama, and Notre Dame in college football.  The enduring franchises that have excelled in numerous eras are always relevant.  They set the bar of excellence long ago, and they give sports its storied heroes and despised villains.  Fair or not, there is a first mover bias to sports.  The teams that achieved fame when a sport rose to prominence will always be relevant to the health of that sport.  Their ups will always receive more accolades, and their downs will be similarly scrutinized.  If Notre Dame ever becomes truly irrelevant we’ll know because we won’t be having this debate.  Until then, I plan to watch our nationally televised primetime game tomorrow night against Michigan State as the irrational, crazed fan that will keep Notre Dame in the public spotlight for the foreseeable future.