It does not take long to look around Notre Dame Stadium and notice the lack of signage and logos (plus no video boards showing commercials or otherwise supported by advertisers). It's not hard to see that the business end of Notre Dame athletics is different, if not unique.

Notre Dame Sports Properties: How Notre Dame Built a Corporate Partner Program for Athletics

Sept. 1, 2011

By John Heisler

When Scott Correira came on board as general manager of Notre Dame Sports Properties in 2003, he knew he and his staff would work with sales and production of the University of Notre Dame’s printed game programs; organizing the Notre Dame men’s basketball radio network, other local Irish sports radio originations, plus the television coaches’ shows — and supporting Notre Dame’s other promotions and marketing efforts from a sales standpoint.

An athletics corporate sponsorship program? The idea had been bandied about, and it was a fledgling yet intriguing concept, but there was nothing in that area that had yet been implemented.

Take one look around Notre Dame Stadium, notice the lack of signage and logos (plus no video boards showing commercials or otherwise supported by advertisers) – and it’s not hard to see that the business end of Notre Dame athletics is a different, if not unique, animal.

So Correira and his staff began to create and then build a national corporate partner program that would immediately cement and strengthen the bonds between Notre Dame and its national media partners.

Here’s how the plan would work: Team Notre Dame partners (eight of them is the current agreed-upon University goal) would agree to a significant financial commitment (more than $1 million) to Notre Dame-connected national media assets. That process would begin with a major ad buy with NBC Sports on Irish home football games and another with IMG (formerly ISP) on Notre Dame’s national football radio network. Additional revenue would be allocated to other Notre Dame-controlled media buys (printed game programs, official athletics web site, etc.), and then the athletics department would retain a portion.

“We wanted to align ourselves with the leading national corporate brands,” says Correira. “They would have the opportunity to take advantage of Notre Dame’s national appeal and fan base in ways that had never before been available.”

One significant key is that the Team Notre Dame program enables the athletics department to drop significant checks on the desks of its primary media partners before those entities’ sales reps ever hit the streets. It has put the NDSP sales team in a position to work hand in hand with its partners to makes those sales efforts successful.

The kicker is that the relationships are portable – as all parties involved saw first-hand four years ago when Notre Dame’s football radio rights transitioned from Westwood One to ISP.

The list of original Team Notre Dame partners was more than a little impressive – adidas, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Gatorade, Xerox, Sirius, Chase and Comcast. From that original list, adidas, Coca-Cola, Gatorade, Xerox and McDonald’s remain, with Sprint now added to the list in the telecommunications category.

Comcast, Sirius/XM and Bank of America currently fall into the next level of partnership as national marketing partners. With no signage in Notre Dame Stadium or Purcell Pavilion and none planned in the Compton Family Ice Arena, Team Notre Dame partners are encouraged to activate their relationships in other ways:

— High-level VIP hospitality weekends on Irish home football weekends for business-to-business relationships, including access to the NDSP hospitality village pre- and post-game. “There’s no better way to display what Notre Dame is all about than for them to see all the elements of a home football weekend,” says Correira.

— Notre Dame brand association, which may involve co-branded ads such as the print ones Xerox did a few years ago featuring the gold Notre Dame helmet (supplemented more recently by a video edition utilizing the leprechaun), as well as national promotions.

— Creating additional campus relationships and integration involving executive speaking opportunities, internships, executive education and potential interviewing and hiring of Notre Dame graduates. “Our partners find out quickly that the University consistently produces very-well qualified graduates who often fit very quickly into these companies’ long-term plans,” says Correira.

From a licensing standpoint, Team Notre Dame partners also have exclusive ability to use the official University marks and logos.

When the Team Notre Dame partners come to campus they’re offered the gamut of events – from the Friday noon kickoff luncheons involving Irish coaches and players to the Friday night pep rallies to a Notre Dame Stadium press box dinner that also includes trips to the Irish locker room and photo opportunities with the “Play Like A Champion Today” sign. Gameday Saturdays generally speak for themselves, with the varied hospitality options that come along with them.

Correira had a previous relationship with Notre Dame athletics as the on-campus representative for Host Communications. But it wasn’t until he returned in ’03 to oversee the marketing and media relationships that the opportunity for corporate sponsors evolved.

The Team Notre Dame program also became a one-stop shopping opportunity, all under the NDSP umbrella, in terms of media buys – compared to previous years when a potential client had to go to NBC, Westwood One and a variety of other stops one at a time to purchase advertising.

“The consolidation of all these media opportunities and the ability to have a personal, official relationships with the University and the people in athletics made this very attractive,” says Correira. “We’ve all gotten to know a great number of the people involved with these companies and they’ve gotten to know us. It’s maybe a step beyond the typical business buy — and that’s been good for all involved. The key is that people have been able to spend enough time with us and on our campus to really understand and appreciate what Notre Dame is all about.

“In the beginning we had to maybe be a little bit more creative in terms of how we went about this. At most schools, in-stadium and courtside signage are significant parts of relationships like this. The conversation at Notre Dame starts with the idea that isn’t something we do here. That’s been a long-standing tradition, and there really isn’t any conversation about changing it. “Even when the Purcell Pavilion video scoreboard went up a year ago, it started with the assumption there would be no commercials and no permanent logos on the board itself. It’s kind of the `PBS model’ for doing business in this area.”

To date, the Team Notre Dame program has survived and even flourished, even in arguably a down economic period. The program may well have opportunities to grow as the University as a whole and athletics in particular look to new technology that may offer more opportunities in the digital media age.

“What’s interesting is that at most institutions, once you sell your media rights, the sales aspect is someone else’s responsibility, at least for the most part,” says Notre Dame vice president and athletics director Jack Swarbrick.

“This is a different approach. This is a way of saying, `As much as you want us to be successful on the field, we want you to be successful and we’re going to work hand in hand with you to help make that happen.’ We are of the belief that the national media assets combined with the brand association creates a very powerful combination.”

Next: Part 2 – The Building Boom: How Facilities Became a Full-Time Enterprise for Notre Dame Athletics