Oct. 3, 2014
By Karen Heisler
Twenty-four years is a long time for any type of relationship – professional or personal – to flourish. Just ask that ancient Greek storyteller Aesop who said, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”
But as the University of Notre Dame and NBC in 2014 celebrate almost a quarter century of a groundbreaking television partnership, the bond between the two established entities in their respective fields remains strong and vibrant. While the worlds of college athletics and television have undergone dramatic, radical and often unpredictable changes over the last 25 years, the Notre Dame and NBC Sports pairing still works remarkably well–for both parties.
“We could not be more proud of this historic partnership, which continues to be one of the most innovative in sports-media history,” veteran NBC Sports producer Rob Hyland says. “We are particularly excited that this most-recent extension offers enhanced rights that allow us to bring Notre Dame football to fans on more platforms than ever–broadcast, cable, digital, regional, and even international.”
“When Notre Dame and NBC first came together in 1991, I think it’s accurate to say that the relationship was mostly about a half-dozen football games a year,” Notre Dame vice president and athletics director Jack Swarbrick says. “However, nearly a quarter century later, there are far more opportunities and complexities involved–and we work together on an ongoing basis to craft strategies relative to content and distribution on a variety of platforms.”
The announcement of the initial five-year deal that gave NBC the television rights to all of Notre Dame’s home football games rocked and shocked both college football and television officials in the winter of 1990. A Supreme Court ruling in 1984 had allowed schools and conferences to negotiate their own television packages, but no one managed to accomplish that until Notre Dame and NBC forged their agreement. Cable television and 24-7 sports networks had yet to explode on the scene, and the best most college football programs could hope for were a few regionally televised games a year through a deal negotiated by the College Football Association. No team had most, if any, of its games airing nationally on a broadcast network.
In an Aug. 25, 1991, story about the Notre Dame-NBC contract in The New York Times, Beano Cook, at the time a respected college football analyst for ESPN, said, “No single conference has enough appeal for one network, but two could get together.” Even the knowledgeable Cook couldn’t decipher the tea leaves and predict the sweeping changes that would turn college football and television topsy-turvy in the ensuing decade.
While teams and leagues have switched conferences, created their own cable television networks and negotiated and renegotiated rights contracts, Notre Dame and NBC continue to sail smoothly.
In April 2013, the University and NBC announced the fifth addition to the initial signing. The new 10-year deal gives NBC the rights to televise Irish home football games from 2016-2025, extending the partnership between Notre Dame and the network to 35 years.
When Notre Dame plays at home or in the Shamrock Series, Irish fans all over the world know exactly where and how to watch their favorite team–and that includes NBC agreements with Fox Sports Asia and ESPN Latin America to make the games available in foreign markets.
Since the broadcast network began televising Notre Dame football home games in 1991, NBC has undergone two ownership changes and added a cable/satellite sports channel (Comcast-owned Versus became NBC Sports Network, or NBCSN, on Jan. 2, 2012) that’s available in more than 85 million homes and can offer desirable time slots for additional Notre Dame programming.
“NBCSN allows us to super-serve the Notre Dame football fan with programming that dovetails with game telecasts,” Hyland says.
While the main event–the football game–is still televised on the NBC broadcast network, which reaches over 116.5 million homes, viewers can watch pre- and post-game shows as well as other Notre Dame programming on NBCSN. Fans of the Band of the Fighting Irish can stream its halftime performance, as well as the game, at NBC Sports Live Extra, NBC Sports Digital’s live streaming product for desktops, mobile devices and tablets.
“What started off as a three-and-a-half-hour telecast has grown significantly over the past few years,” Hyland says. “In addition to producing the game telecast, we now produce a pre-game show, a halftime show and a post-game show for every home game. All that content originates from our on-site game production truck.”
Although NBC has broadcast 151 Notre Dame football games (today’s Stanford contest counts as 152) since the 1991 home opener against Indiana University, the network’s Emmy Award-winning production staff still approaches each Irish assignment with energy, passion and professionalism. Hyland, who began producing Notre Dame football in 2009, always looks for the most effective and creative way to tell the story of that particular contest.
“The goal of every game is to educate, inform and entertain the viewer,” says Hyland, who has won 15 Emmys in 17 years with NBC. “The goal every year is to further enhance the viewer’s experience.”
On any given Saturday during the fall, college football fans watching at home can choose from over two dozen games in an increasingly cluttered television sports landscape. Yet, Hyland feels confident the product NBC offers with Notre Dame football appeals to even the most casual college football follower.
“Notre Dame is a unique brand that stands apart,” Hyland says. “Our best asset is simply to showcase Notre Dame and its opponent. We `dress’ each telecast with the atmosphere and scenery that is distinct to this football program and the University. We use a lot of campus scenics, film the team walkover before each game and have a camera in the locker room that shoots the players touching the `Play Like A Champion’ sign on their way to the field. We also showcase the Notre Dame band in and out of commercial breaks.”
NBC’s on-air talent and production staff spend countless hours researching both teams to find the most intriguing matchups, compelling stories, historical anecdotes and interesting facts and figures. Hyland, his director Pierre Moossa and the commentators meet with coaches and players of both teams as well as with each school’s athletics media relations staff during the week of the game. The information they cull may make it to air in the form of video packages, graphics and on-air commentary.
But the most important narrative for viewers (and fans of both teams) still centers around what happens on the field. Although coaches may want a “blow-out,” producers and announcers hope for a close game with riveting action.
Play-by-play announcer Dan Hicks and analyst Mike Mayock, who joined NBC’s coverage of Notre Dame football in 2010, are in their second season as the duo in the booth, while Kathryn Tappen in 2014 began her first year as the sideline reporter. NBC also has added in-game analysis from former Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie, who offers his perspective from field level as a member of the pre-game, halftime and post-game shows.
“Although our commentators have changed over the years, each one brings the utmost professionalism and impartiality to the Notre Dame broadcasts on NBC,” Hyland says.
NBC, the nation’s oldest broadcast network, long has been a leader in using innovative sports technology to augment the viewer’s experience. Television was in its infancy when the network produced the first American telecast of a sporting event May 17, 1939–a Princeton versus Columbia baseball game–with just one camera, along the third-base line. NBC’s telecast of the 1962 Rose Bowl marked the first national broadcast of a college football game in color. The NBC Sports Group has won more than 90 Emmys for productions of its vast array of properties, including the NFL, the Olympics, NASCAR, the NHL, the PGA, the Premier League, MLS, Indy Car racing, the Tour de France and the Breeder’s Cup.
Approximately 20 cameras, including “Skycam,” a computer-controlled, stabilized, cable-suspended camera system, capture the action in and around Notre Dame Stadium during the telecast and offer views from every imaginable angle. More than 80 crew members serve on the broadcast’s production team, helping to produce a telecast that’s cohesive, informative, appealing and fun to watch.
The pre- and post-game shows, which normally run 30 minutes, feature live commentary and analysis from studio host Liam McHugh, Flutie and Hines Ward, who played 14 years in the NFL for the Pittsburgh Steelers and was MVP of Super Bowl XL. The trio operates from a portable set in the southwest corner of Notre Dame Stadium. Both programs offer live interviews with players and coaches as well as taped in-depth feature pieces. When NBC televised Notre Dame’s primetime games against Michigan and Purdue (the Shamrock Series) earlier this season, the pre- and post-game shows were expanded to an hour each.
NBCSN also has televised Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold spring football game as well as Notre Dame’s home hockey games on Friday nights (via a relationship with Hockey East). Other Notre Dame-related shoulder programming on the cable network includes “Strong & True,” a documentary-style series, produced by 3 Penny Films and Fighting Irish Digital Media, that offers an inside, behind-the scenes look at Notre Dame football and other Irish sports. A trio of “Strong & True” football shows will appear in 2014-15, as well as “Onward Notre Dame,” which focuses on Notre Dame’s Shamrock Series visit to Indianapolis.
A year ago, NBCSN aired one “Strong of Heart” episode and three “Strong & True” football programs. “Onward Notre Dame — Destination Dallas,” a review of the 2013 Shamrock Series game in AT&T Stadium, and “Shipping Up to Boston,” a program centering on the Irish hockey team’s visit to Fenway Park, also were broadcast.
“For more than 20 years, the national broadcast of our home games on NBC has brought wonderful exposure to our football program, as well as to the University as a whole through the `Fighting For. . . ` ads that appear at halftime,” University president Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., says. “Less well known to the general public is the fact that the majority of the revenue we receive through the contract goes to undergraduate financial aid, making a Notre Dame education possible for thousands. NBC has been and remains a valued partner.”
Since Notre Dame signed the initial agreement with NBC in 1990, the University has committed revenues from the partnership to its financial aid endowment. Over the last 24 years, approximately 6,484 Notre Dame undergraduates have received nearly $93 million in non-athletic financial aid, thanks to the NBC contract. Revenue from NBC also supports endowed doctoral fellowships in the Graduate School and MBA scholarships in the Mendoza College of Business.
The longevity of the relationship between Notre Dame and NBC may still surprise and befuddle many observers who have monitored the seismic shifts in college sports and media over the last three decades. But it’s nice to know that even in times of constant change, some good things still remain the same.