A generation of football fans has matured since 1991, with NBC as Notre Dame's television home. On six Saturday afternoons every year in South Bend, Indiana, the Fighting Irish own 270 minutes of real estate on the peacock network.
Through 86 games, Notre Dame has been NBC's team, starting with the best of times with Lou Holtz, continuing with the humdrum days of Bob Davie before moving on to the unfulfilled expectations with Tyrone Willingham, and now the new 4-1 regime with Charlie Weis.
"It's a great linkage of brands, Notre Dame and NBC," said Ken Schanzer, the president of NBC Universal Sports, who in early 1990 negotiated the network's market-shaking, five-year contract with Notre Dame for US$38 million.
NBC might have hoped for at least one national title for Notre Dame. It has not gotten any. But it still represents a profitable relationship, according to NBC.
This Saturday's game between ninth-ranked Notre Dame and No. 1 Southern California qualifies as potentially the most significant contest for the NBC-South Bend axis since 1993, when the No. 2 Irish beat top-ranked Florida State. That game 12 years ago produced a 16.0 rating, the highest in the term of the contract and double the second-highest for the 1994 home opener against Michigan.
Kevin O'Malley, a sports television consultant, said, "The deal depends on the rising fortunes of one school, which one might say is riskier than others, but the way it's been designed and sold, it hasn't been that risky."
The Notre Dame slate has never been the top-rated one; its peak 6.1 rating in 1993 was the closest it came to ABC's top-rated college football package (a 7.1 that year). From 1991 to 2004, as ABC's average rating has fallen 41.8 percent, the Notre Dame rating has tumbled 45.6 percent, as the team receded as a national power.
These are, for NBC and Notre Dame, hope-filled times, with Weis remaking Brady Quinn as a quarterback and improving his recruiting class to one of the best in the nation. But high aspirations have soured before.
In 2002, Willingham's first season, Notre Dame's 10-3 record caused NBC's rating to leap 29 percent. But when the team fell to 5-7 the next season, the rating sagged by 22.5 percent.
The NBC-Notre Dame deal was a consequence of the NCAA's being relieved of its talon's grip on controlling football telecasts. In 1984 the US Supreme Court voided the NCAA's television deal. Justice John Paul Stevens called it "insensitive to viewer preference," which makes you wonder how he chooses what to watch on glutted Saturdays or if he's a Thursday night kind of guy.
The College Football Association, which Notre Dame and 60-odd other colleges formed, became the main college television kingmaker. In January 1990, with its deal with CBS ending, the CFA struck a five-year, US$210 million agreement with ABC.
Soon after, though, Dick Rosenthal, who was then Notre Dame's athletic director, conveyed to Schanzer his uneasiness about the deal when they met primarily to discuss the university's basketball relationship with NBC.
"I could see he was more than a little exercised about it," Schanzer said. "It was nuance, but I could see that Dick was upset." He added, "I said, `Would you want to talk about your own football deal?' And he said, `I might think about that."'
On Feb. 5, 1990, NBC and Notre Dame were formally wed -- and 15 years later, Chuck Neinas, then the CFA's executive director, still feels the betrayal.
The Reverand E. William Beauchamp, a Notre Dame executive vice president, sat on the CFA's board and, Neinas said, "blessed the ABC deal as a member of the TV committee," giving every indication that Notre Dame, with its valuable appeal to a national constituency, was in the fold. "An attorney friend told me, `You can't sit there, negotiate a deal and two weeks later he and Dick Rosenthal were doing something else,"' Neinas said from Boulder, Colo. "That I will never forget."
At the time, Rosenthal said that Notre Dame had never given its assent to the CFA deal, which he said would have diminished the university's national status.
Feelings have long since softened and college football's landscape is vastly different. The conferences, not the CFA, make network deals.
In 1991 ESPN televised 44 games; this year it will carry 446. CSTV is part of the new world, as is ESPNU. All that product has reduced the intrinsic value of all games, including Notre Dame's on NBC, but it has given more fans what they want.
"The number of games is obscene," Schanzer said.
And not having to pay obscenely high fees is important, too. Even as Notre Dame's fortunes have gyrated, NBC's payments have remained quite affordable.
The US$7.6-million-a-year average fee NBC paid from 1991 to 1995 has risen modestly to about US$9 million through 2010, or US$1.5 million a game.
"Whatever it is we're paying," Schanzer said, "we're delighted to be in this relationship. We want to keep going forever."
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