The independent voice of Notre Dame Athletics

  • Marketing Smoke and Mirrors

    by John Vannie

    As the college football season approaches, the Notre Dame marketing machine has shifted into high gear to trumpet an enhanced game day experience for its patrons. The Big Top in this three ring circus is Crossroads, a $400M conglomeration of stadium improvements, luxury boxes, classroom facilities, and a super-sized video board that promises to violate your senses. We are assured that these major investments underscore the University’s unabashed support for the football program, and Crossroads logically follows other recent expenditures for artificial turf, training and practice facilities, and a significant increase in the size of the football staff.

    As you might expect, the cost of all this splendor is borne by wealthy donors, along with mainstream alumni and fans who are expected to attend the games. The price of admission has risen exponentially of late, and excess tickets have flooded the resale market. The reason for the lack of enthusiasm is Notre Dame has been so busy patting itself on the back for building monuments that it overlooked the first rule of marketing. It’s the product, stupid. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, the product on the field stinks. This is not an indictment of the players in the recent past or present. They are the victims of poor development and uninspired leadership, and wear countless yards of tread marks from the metaphorical bus under which Brian Kelly has pitched them.

    Sure, curious people will shell out $150 to see the monstrous Lego-like fortress that now surrounds the House that Rockne built, but one visit will most likely be sufficient. There is a four hour period right in the middle of all the pomp and circumstance during which a football game will be played, and the product Notre Dame has rolled out for much of the last 20 years is a football version of New Coke or Crystal Pepsi. In fact, the value proposition for attending a game is at an all-time low. I’ve yet to hear this slogan – “Hey, we’re better than the _____ (insert Bears, Colts, or Lions)!”, but it could hit the airwaves in October.

    Unfortunately, there is no direct correlation in competitive sports between the amount of money spent and the success of the product. If that were the case, Daniel Snyder would easily have more Lombardi trophies than Robert Kraft. The missing ingredient is leadership, which is entirely a human element. Notre Dame’s dynamic duo of Kelly and the horse he rode in on (Jack Swarbrick) have proven to be small-minded mediocrities who spend more energy spinning failure than seeking improvement. A complete revamp of Kelly’s assistant coaches during the offseason is as likely to turn things around as the most recent staff changes in the White House.

    Notre Dame’s reluctance to fire Kelly and Swarbrick is rooted in the painful exercise of paying large sums of money to previous failed coaches long after they left town. Kelly is still owed a lot of money under his current contract, and he is not willing to negotiate a buyout for a lesser amount. The resultant stalemate is silently perpetuated between feckless administrators and a coach who has no other job prospects. Kelly fills his seat today while giving minimal effort, and he continues to embarrass the University with every self-serving public utterance. Meanwhile, the product for which he is responsible remains decidedly mediocre. The number crunchers within the Administration should be recalculating the return-on-investment algorithm for Crossroads, because empty seats and no-shows are becoming the new normal.

    While I understand it is painful to cut one’s losses and fire a poor performer or two, it’s inconceivable that Notre Dame can spend much greater sums on peripherals while turning a blind eye to the most vital part of the equation. Until bold changes are made to remove complacency and rehabilitate a once great product, the rollout of Crossroads is little more than a plus-sized empty suit made of bricks.

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