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Notre Dame revival brings revenue bonanza to football foes

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Notre Dame’s football team is undefeated after five games for the first time in a decade. That’s good news for their opponents.

After working through six coaches and compiling a 112-78 record since Lou Holtz retired after the 1996 season, the program that won eight Associated Press national titles and produced legendary figures such as Knute Rockne and George Gipp is ranked No. 7 this season. The revival means the team is even more of a draw on the road for fans and sponsors.

“Notre Dame fans travel and that’s where the economic impact comes from,” said Scott Minto, director of San Diego State University’s Sports MBA program. “You can also tell sponsors you have Notre Dame on the schedule and that means national television. That’s better for increasing their sponsorship deals than any team they could play.”

A revival of the Fighting Irish as a perennial top-10 team may deliver the greatest long-term benefit to the Atlantic Coast Conference, which Notre Dame joined in all sports except football. They will remain independent while playing five games a year against ACC teams beginning in 2014.

When Wake Forest University hosted Notre Dame last November in Winston-Salem, N.C., the crowd exceeded Wake’s seating capacity of 31,500 by 4,807. To accommodate the demand, the Demon Deacons sold tickets to the grass hill behind the south end zone, where people sat on blankets. Notre Dame won 24- 17.

“They are a national brand,” said Steve Shutt, Wake Forest’s athletic department spokesman. “That’s the benefit to everybody in the ACC.”

Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick wasn’t available to comment.

Notre Dame is a Catholic institution in South Bend with about 8,000 undergraduate students and a $6.3 billion endowment in fiscal 2011, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

The school’s football program generated $68.8 million of the athletic department’s $94.5 million in revenue, according to reports filed with the Department of Education.

It’s enough to compete with much bigger state institutions such as the University of Texas in Austin, which has an undergraduate enrollment of about 38,000 and where the football team generated $95.7 million of the department’s $150.3 million in revenue.

The Irish travel to Chestnut Hill, Mass., to play Boston College of the ACC on Nov. 10, and an upper-deck end zone seat is selling for an average $136, compared with $11 for a similar seat to the Virginia Tech contest the following week, according to SeatGeek.com, a New York-based ticket aggregator.

The average price for all available tickets to Notre Dame games was $154, well ahead of Boston College’s other ACC opponents this season: Virginia Tech ($38), Clemson ($37), Miami ($28) and Maryland ($16).

Through three televised games this season, viewership of NBC’s Notre Dame broadcasts is up 45 percent compared with last year's average 4.2 million viewers, the network said.

“We continue to be thrilled with our Notre Dame football partnership and hope it continues for many, many years to come,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network, in an e-mail.

While the Fighting Irish’s success boosts opponents, the school isn’t reaping any great financial payout from its on-field success just yet. Home games already are sold out; sponsorship agreements usually run for five, seven and 10 years; the five-year television extension the school signed with NBC runs through the 2015 football season; and ticket prices can’t be raised until next season.

The university benefits in other ways. Fanatics Inc., a Jacksonville, Fla.-based company that runs the official online stores for more than 100 college and professional teams, said sales of Notre Dame merchandise since September ranked second in the U.S. behind the University of Alabama—which has the No. 1 football team—and was up 68 percent from this time last year. Fanatics said 89 percent of fans who purchased Irish merchandise in September lived outside Indiana.

Page views on Notre Dame’s website increased 7 percent to 6.4 million in September from a year before, according to John Heisler, Notre Dame’s chief athletic department spokesman.

Though sales of merchandise and visits to the website will only lead to an incremental increase in the university’s revenue, they probably strengthen Notre Dame’s brand over the long term, eventually leading to increases in television and sponsorship agreements when they come up for renegotiation.

The best thing the Irish can do for the school’s finances now is to keep winning.

Their next chance will come at home Saturday against No. 17 Stanford University (4-1).

Notre Dame has finished in the Associated Press Top 10 once since 1993, and its 20-3 victory over then-No. 10 Michigan State on Sept. 15 was its first over a Top 10 opponent in seven years. It hasn’t won the national championship since Holtz’s 1988 team. No players on this year’s team had been born then.

The Irish defense has allowed 39 points, the school’s fewest in the opening five games of a season since 1975, when opponents scored 34 points.

It didn’t allow a touchdown in the past three games, against Michigan, Michigan State and Miami.

“That’s an incredible feat for our defense,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, who took over the program in 2010, said in a press conference this week.

Notre Dame is the only team in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s top echelon that has never trailed this season. The last time they started a season without being behind in five consecutive games was 1947. Notre Dame won the national championship in 1946 and 1947 and never trailed in either season.

“Our players understand that the plan is to get better,” Kelly said. “It’s fundamentals, it’s technique, it’s assignments.”

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