NBC hoping for reward from ND streaming risk

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – In real time this week, the exclusive placement of Notre Dame’s game against Toledo on NBC’s streaming service, Peacock Premium, is an inconvenience. Some of the fan base is grumbling at the extra minimum charge of $4.99, and there’s certainly going to be longtime Notre Dame fans leaning on younger relatives to walk them through the process of streaming the game.

Yet this seemingly innocuous game exiting linear television for the streaming world offers a trial balloon for the future of college sports. It’s a test of Notre Dame’s brand and unique national following, as well as its ability to drive subscribers to a premium service.

We’ve entered an era of college sports when quality of brand trumps quantity of content, with the defection of Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC the halogen sign pointing to the future.

With No. 8 Notre Dame coming off two undefeated regular seasons in three years and arguably near a generational peak on the field, the game offers a compelling test of new media consumption: Can Notre Dame be the “Ted Lasso” of college football?

We’re a few years from Notre Dame’s current deal with NBC expiring after the 2025 season, but this weekend will offer an early peek, via stream numbers, into Notre Dame’s potential value for the next iteration. NBC executives, Notre Dame athletic officials and those around the television and college sports industry will be watching the results carefully.

“I think Notre Dame is at the apex of its value,” Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick told Yahoo Sports. “So much in recent years in terms of both our performance, and the role we’ve played in some critical decisions in college athletics have put us in that position.”

TALLAHASSEE, FL - SEPTEMBER 05: Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Jack Kiser (24), Notre Dame Fighting Irish safety DJ Brown (2), and Notre Dame Fighting Irish running back Logan Diggs (22) before the game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Florida State Seminoles on September 5, 2021 at Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Fl. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Notre Dame linebacker Jack Kiser (24), safety DJ Brown (2), and running back Logan Diggs (22) before the game between the Irish and Florida State on Sunday. (David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

For NBC, the game offers another peek at the future of broadcasting. NBC has broadcast Notre Dame games for 31 years, and the decision to pull the game off traditional linear television and offer it only on a streaming service is a unique one in college football. NBC is essentially giving up eyeballs in the short-term to potentially gauge how invested the Notre Dame fan base is for the sake of capturing value in the future.

“One of the cornerstones of our historic partnership with Notre Dame has been innovation, and Saturday’s game will be the next step in that evolution,” Pete Bevacqua, the chairman of NBC Sports Group, said in a statement to Yahoo Sports. “As soon as we proposed this idea, Notre Dame was cooperative and progressive, recognizing viewers’ changing consumer habits.”

Bevacqua, a 1993 Notre Dame graduate, knows the relationship well after playing for Lou Holtz there as a walk-on punter. Since Holtz’s departure after the 1996 season, Notre Dame’s performance fluctuated and its ability to remain college football’s most prominent independent has been sporadically called into question.

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But Swarbrick’s hiring of Brian Kelly in the wake of a 16-21 stretch in Charlie Weis’ final three years provided a turning point for Notre Dame’s climb back to consistent national relevancy. After Kelly arrived following the 2009 season, the school drastically upgraded its facilities, began paying staff competitively and leveraged the school’s national brand to recruit better nationally.

There’s a sense of pride for Swarbrick and Kelly when they reflect on this arc of the rebuild and the opportunity the next television contract presents. When asked how Notre Dame can leverage the apex of its value, Swarbrick smiles big and declines comment. His grin permeates optimism. Kelly jokes that he doesn’t exactly think about TV contracts when he’s putting together the daily practice plan. But he knows what this means in the macro.

“You would be burying your head in the sand if you didn’t pay attention to streaming video, like Peacock, and what that might mean to changing the course of Notre Dame and television contracts and how that maybe influences other conferences accordingly,” Kelly said. “This is how I truly think about it: Keep winning. Keep winning, and my job for Jack is to win football games.”

Nov 7, 2020; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly leads his team out of the tunnel before the game against the Clemson Tigers at Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame defeated Clemson 47-40 in two overtimes. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Irish head coach Brian Kelly leads his team out of the tunnel before facing Clemson in 2020 in South Bend. (Matt Cashore/USA TODAY Sports)

Notre Dame held on to win in overtime at Florida State, 41-38, on Sunday night, a game that registered an average of more than 7 million viewers. It peaked in overtime at 8.8 million people watching the game, and those numbers didn’t include out-of-home viewership.

It’s the latest flex for Notre Dame, who has appeared to solidify its future independence over the past decade. It agreed to join the ACC in a vast majority of its sports other than football and hockey in 2012. (With that, the Irish receive a partial ACC membership share, which is estimated at nearly $7 million.)

Swarbrick played a key role with three other college sports leaders in crafting the proposed 12-team College Football Playoff that includes Notre Dame.

“It’s been professionally rewarding,” said Swarbrick, who took over as athletic director in 2008. “But the evolution has been both satisfying and interesting. You look at articles six, seven years ago, it was that we can’t stay independent. In this most recent version of realignment, it’s been, Notre Dame’s not going to do anything different. Notre Dame’s not going to change. It’s a remarkable shift in the perception of us.”

How much can things financially change Notre Dame under the new deal? It’s always difficult to give apples-to-apples comparisons of television contracts, especially when dealing with different revenue splits.

The specifics of Notre Dame’s NBC deal for football aren’t known, as the contract signed in 2013 that started in 2016 has been reported to be worth $15 million annually for football. It’s safe to assume that has escalated through the agreement, as the general industry perception of Notre Dame’s overall TV revenue – the combination of the NBC deal and other TV revenues – is that it’s above the reported ACC per-team payouts ($32.3 million) but below the Big Ten ($54.3 million).

Again, the comparisons are tricky as the networks in those deals are paying for the right to pick a league’s best game, as opposed to the home games on Notre Dame’s schedule. But the intriguing question emerges: How much money can Notre Dame draw past 2025?

With SEC teams expected to make north of $60 million in revenue under the new deal starting in 2024, could Notre Dame end up in that neighborhood? How much will this game hint at future value?

It’s hard to say, but it’s intriguing to ponder the ratings of the Florida State game or the more than 10 million viewers on NBC for the home game against Clemson last year. How many people would pay for those games individually? If only half that number paid $5, it’d be a transformative figure.

The Toledo experiment is a potential pathway there down the road.

“It’s a timid step toward moving some events to streaming,” said Neal Pilson, the president of Pilson Communications and a former president of CBS Sports. “Not the big events. Not the major events. This isn’t USC. This is Toledo.”

With big brands becoming vogue – as opposed to leagues seeking cable boxes in the last round of realignment – it’s worth wondering if upcoming consumption trends tempt other elite schools with national followings to seek independence.

“It’s a great question,” Swarbrick said. “I think the entanglements of the conference networks make it really hard for people to follow us to independence, but for that, I think a number of people would.”

The Toledo game will also be instructive for the rest of college athletics. With the Big Ten (2022-23), Pac-12 (2023-24) and reconfigured Big 12 (2024-25) deals coming to market in the next few years, the question will linger whether the elite brands in those leagues are going to demand an unequal amount of revenue sharing within the league. Would USC and Oregon make more than Arizona and Oregon State? Or would Ohio State be paid at a different tier than Purdue and Maryland? Could performance or stream numbers determine those payouts?

The Toledo experiment could also partially inform NBC officials if they want to bid on other college football rights. ESPN’s financial fidelity to the SEC for its upcoming TV deal and expected investment in the College Football Playoff have appeared to leave some room for bidders in the college sports rights space. A bigger presence for NBC would be significant as a large amount of ESPN’s financial oxygen appears to be committed. Could streaming make it a motivated bidder?

A major factor hanging over the upcoming TV deals for Notre Dame and the three major conferences will be how significant of a presence streaming is. How quickly does the model evolve from linear? We’ll get an early peek at viewer’s habits on Saturday.

Is this the first step to college football following the NFL’s model, where it got platforms like Amazon Prime to experiment with the product and eventually go bigger and bigger?

“I just think the legacy linear model will be a majority of the viewers and the content and the money through 2025,” said Matt Balvanze, senior vice president of analytics and innovation for Navigate Research. “I would say still 60-40 or 70-30 linear. It’s a slow roll, and the equation isn’t there yet. You’re giving up money for commercials for those huge audiences and losing audiences from recruiting perspective.”