The Notre Dame Brand

September 18, 2014

I’m a sports fan. But ten years ago, my sports fandom didn’t reach to college football. Having gone to a small, private liberal arts university, football games weren’t an integral part of our student experience.

And then I married a Notre Dame fan. Getting on the bandwagon was easier than not. Sure. Why not? I’ll be a Notre Dame fan. I had no allegiances elsewhere. And everyone loves the movie Rudy. That was enough for me. (This is likely not an admission that will sit well with the loyal Penn State and Ohio State fans in my office. Sorry!)

While I can’t tell you nearly as much about the team or its heritage, as a “real” fan, I am completely intrigued by the Notre Dame brand. Notre Dame is a relatively small, Catholic, private school in Indiana; this is not a traditional recipe for national (perhaps even global) brand appeal. So what is it about Notre Dame that gives it such brand strength? What is it that makes people who never went to Notre Dame root so avidly for the team? What is it that makes just as many others root so avidly against them?

Business model
When it comes to football, Notre Dame is independent. The school does not belong to any NCAA football conferences. It negotiates its own television rights, its own schedule and in essence, its own rivalries. Notre Dame is not beholden to anyone but Notre Dame. By operating outside a regional conference, Notre Dame affords itself tremendous national appeal.

In between long-term rivalries with USC, Navy and Purdue, Notre Dame’s independence also allows the school to play a national schedule. Intermittent rivalries with Stanford, Michigan and Purdue have arisen, but the school has had the opportunity to expand its reach to college football regional powerhouses in Florida, Georgia and Ohio as well.

Dollar value
According to Forbes’ annual listing of the most valuable college football teams, the Notre Dame football team increased in value by 14% to $177 million in 2013. No doubt, much of this increase came from the team’s undefeated performance the prior season and appearance in the BCS National Championship Game. Yet even without this increase, the Notre Dame football program has been highly rated on its financial value for many years.

The financial value of the brand, as evidenced by its business performance, is clearly providing lift to the overall brand reputation. Or perhaps it’s also the reverse – the value of the Notre Dame football brand is providing lift to the overall financial value of the football organization. Consider that the financial value of the brand, as determined by Forbes’ study, incorporates the following four measures: a team's value to its athletic department, its university's academic endeavors, its conference and its school's local economy. The total sum of all the interactions with each of these audiences is after all, what defines the brand.

I joked about my appreciation for the movie Rudy earlier, but much of that movie sums up the culture and the personality of Notre Dame on the football field and beyond. It is a school that inspires legend of mythical proportions. That legend – defined by a commitment to excellence in sports, academics and conduct – is the third leg on which the strength of the Notre Dame football brand stands.

The legend is enhanced by the school’s heritage. Even non-sports fans have likely heard the names Knute Rockne, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz. They are part of the university’s mythology. But they alone do not inspire the legend.

Consistently, Notre Dame has maintained its reputation as an academic powerhouse. Per the Forbes report, the university “provides support to academic programming that’s unmatched by any team in college football.” In fact, the university suspended its star quarterback, Everett Golson, for academic misconduct. The university risked its football season because its team leader didn’t meet the academic standards that underlie the institution. You’d be hard pressed to find another big football school to do the same.

Per reports, Golson took responsibility for his error and for falling short of the Notre Dame standards. According to the outside quarterback coach who worked with Golson during the year he was suspended,  “You know what impressed me the most? He never acted like the victim. He never acted like somebody did him wrong. He knew he messed up and he took responsibility for his mistake. He was a grown man about it. And he came here and he worked and he worked.''

By all accounts, that is the Notre Dame way.

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