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Communicating the News of Irish Athletics

Oct. 6, 2011

The Business of Notre Dame Athletics–third of a six-part series

By John Heisler

When you consider all the technology available today, it’s downright amazing to think how archaic athletic communications were just a few short years ago.

Need the latest University of Notre Dame football statistics? They’d be calculated and typed by hand on a manual typewriter (eventually the “big innovation” IBM Selectric typewriter came along), reproduced and mailed on Sunday nights and maybe you’d receive them via ordinary mail by Thursday.

Need them quicker than that? The hit commodity in technology in the 1970s was the Xerox Telecopier (a facsimile machine) that required either four or six minutes (depending on how clear you wanted the type to read) to send a single page of copy to another Telecopier on the other end.

If a media representative out of town needed your entire news release, depth chart and stats, it might take an hour or more to send it all.

Breaking news happening on one of the Irish athletic fields? There was no simple way to communicate it. Pick up the telephone and dictate. Call media outlets one at a time to alert them about a hiring or press conference.

Three technology advances changed everything in the sports information world everywhere – cell phones, the Internet and e-mail.

For years the joke around the Notre Dame athletic offices was that the Irish quarterback on a given day might break his leg and – given that practices were closed to the media – there was some chance no one would find out until the next day.

There was no texting, no Facebook – maybe no way for the word to get out other than old-fashioned word of mouth.

The World Wide Web prompted the offering of athletic sites like that debuted in 1995. In the beginning sites like Notre Dame’s offered strictly the basics – mostly what was available via traditional press releases. There was no video in the “early days,” and media members weren’t yet routinely carrying computers or laptops. So, quite often, the plea to media to utilize school sites for time-sensitive items like statistics went unheeded.

About that same time, cell phones changed the face of telecommunications. When current athletics staffers consider all the detailed scheduling and adjustments that go into, for example, a weeklong stay for a postseason bowl game, it’s hard to imagine how those events ever occurred without cell phones. The Orange Bowl provided some new contraption-style portable phones to Notre Dame reps one year, but they looked more like walkie-talkies than the current variety and they didn’t exactly fit in your pocket.

Then e-mail made the distribution of all sorts of information a snap. Still images and video and all kinds of other files now can be shared with the touch of a button. In some ways, e-mail has taken the personal touch out of the interaction between media and athletics communication staff – but it also has made life far easier for all involved.

Athletics Web sites, once rather static and one-dimensional, have changed drastically. Video and interactivity now dominate that space – and colleges and universities have begun to treat their sites as their own news outlets. Notre Dame has routinely been streaming about 100 live home athletic events per year for some number of seasons now. Back in August, Irish head coach Brian Kelly announced the reinstatement of Michael Floyd via both printed statements and video interviews that broke on (and were communicated as well via Twitter). Kelly and Floyd met with the media later that same afternoon, but for some period of time Notre Dame’s athletic Web site served as the source for the story.

The various opportunities to communicate now involve much greater integration within the Notre Dame athletics department. A traditional press release now can be supported by images, video, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, text alerts and other social media options.

Many Notre Dame sports programs have created their own Facebook and Twitter accounts, in great part to help recruiting. As the NCAA has eliminated printed media guides as permissible recruiting aids, coaches now look to electronic options to tell their story.

Into Twitter? You can find a variety of Notre Dame coaches, athletes, sports and staffers who Tweet. Easily the most popular in terms of followers has been women’s basketball star Skylar Diggins who watched her numbers fly off the charts last March and April during Notre Dame’s run to the NCAA national championship game. Another popular Notre Dame Tweeter? It’s football equipment manager Ryan Grooms, whose followers are obsessed with the details and intricacies of Irish football uniforms, gear and equipment items.

The Notre Dame ticketing and promotions staff put together a far-reaching Irish Facebook page to help promote all the Irish events – and it’s now been combined with the Notre Dame media relations version to create a more consistent and integrated message.

USA Today recently commended Notre Dame’s athletic text alert system that provides immediate scores, statistics and other announcements via cell phone texts as events happen.

Even at a time when media coverage has never been more extensive for college programs, thanks in great part to the proliferation of Web sites and cable, schools are doing even more on their own to tell their stories. Institutions are realizing they have more access to their own players and coaches than anyone, so who better to tell the story of what’s really happening behind the scenes? Cutting-edge video options such as flip-cams, often wielded by student-athletes in locker rooms and team buses, make posting casual video on Facebook or Web sites almost an instantaneous phenomenon. While athletics departments routinely depended for years on the media to tell those stories, the many new and social media now often allow schools to go to their alumni, fans and other constituents directly. Notre Dame in August launched its most ambitious blog yet on – the Irish UNDerground, a compendium of facts and figures, video and still images, links and trivia.

The Big Ten Conference has its own network. So does the University of Texas. There isn’t a league or major school of note that isn’t at least contemplating what it can do in that sphere.

Notre Dame hired its own director of digital media for athletics over the summer in Dan Skendzel. He’s the first person assigned full-time to the challenge of communicating via that medium. He has a tall order in front of him as the Irish staff considers its options and opportunities, its archives and its interest and ability in creating programming on its own. There’s a one-year-old video board at Purcell Pavilion and one to come at the new Compton Family Ice Arena that both provide challenges and opportunities in a medium that remains relatively new on the Irish campus.

So, take stock of all your options. You can still purchase a traditional printed media guide (although electronic versions already exist and digital versions are coming) or watch a traditional coach’s show on television. You can still pick up a handful of newspapers on Sunday morning to read what the mainstream sportswriters have to say about today’s game. But you don’t have to wait that long if you don’t want to. There are plenty of Web sites that will post coverage within hours. You can watch live postgame Brian Kelly press conferences on Original “webisodes” on provide intimate glimpses into places traditional media seldom can go. Into the social media? There’s now an athletics staffer responsible for nothing but constantly blogging and posting information on Notre Dame football for Facebook and Twitter. You can’t get it from the ultimate source any more quickly than that.

And, a few decades back, when the unmistakable odor of the Telecopier was wafting through the air in the sports information hallway, who would have believed all this would be happening?

Next: Part 4 – The Performance Team: Combining Notre Dame’s Resources to Make Irish Athletes Bigger, Faster, Stronger