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Some Irish Home Games on Versus: How Does This Change Notre Dame Football?

Versus will be re-branded as the NBC Sports Network on January 2, 2012.
Versus will be re-branded as the NBC Sports Network on January 2, 2012.

On Tuesday August, 9th an article appeared in the sports section of the Salt Lake Tribune that spilled the beans on some (apparent) future moves for Notre Dame football on television.

Said new NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus,

"We’re going to take a game or two [of Notre Dame football] and put it on Versus."

In January 2012, the channel Versus will be re-branded the NBC Sports Network in the wake of Comcast’s majority takeover of NBC Universal in January of this year.

Comcast now owns 51% of NBC Universal, with General Electric holding a 49% stake. Comcast has made it known for sometime that they are aggressively looking to build up the NBC Sports Network as a direct competitor to ESPN.

Lasarus continued,

"What we really want to do is try and find stuff that can build up the cable channel [NBC Sports Network]. That’s the key. That’s where all the money is."

It appears Notre Dame football will be an important aspect of building up this new NBC Sports Network.

First of all, we’ve been covering this topic at One Foot Down for over a year and knew that moving Irish games to cable was a possibility, but we didn’t believe an announcement would happen this quickly.

It was generally believed that Comcast would make a decision once it became clear exactly how good Notre Dame would become under Brian Kelly, which would allow them wait on some ratings of upcoming games, and see where to go from there. That they are willing to use Notre Dame in such a prominent way after just one year of Kelly in South Bend, it likely means Comcast is extremely serious about building up the NBC Sports Network.

We would like more information on this topic and find it odd that this rather bombshell of a news story would drop in a tiny column of a paper in Utah, so we’ll have to see what Notre Dame officially has to say about all of this.

Secondly, this wasn’t the best way to break the news with some of these quotes from Lazarus (who has succeeded noted Notre Dame enthusiast Dick Ebersol as chairman of NBC Sports). It would have been better if there were more details involved and not simply, "Yeah, we're going to move some games to cable because that's where the money is."

Like many, my initial reaction was quite negative towards this news, mostly because the statement felt hurried and too off the cuff. Right now it does feel like Notre Dame is being used (even if it also means the Notre Dame brand is still highly valued), but we're simply not used to news like this breaking without a clear statement of goals from the university.

Let’s sort through this and look at the positives and negatives from what we know right now.

The Negatives

Moving Some Home Games to Cable is Perceived as Being Pushed Down the Totem Pole

The key word here is perceived.

This might not necessarily be true (more on that in a bit), but there a lot of people who see games leaving a broadcast network like NBC and heading to the wild frontier of cable as a definite drop in prestige.

The perception might not matter as much as the end results, though.

Moving some games from a channel that everyone with a television can tune into might not seem like a good idea, but it could pay off if Notre Dame football is a key feature of a increasingly popular and profitable cable network.

Can ND Still Sell Playing on "Free" Cable for Every Home Game?

This was a huge selling point for the school when they first signed the NBC contract 20 years ago, yet is the NBC contract still a big motivator for recruits?

Does moving a couple games even matter?

Or does the fact that the Irish play 99% of their games on some form of national television still the most important and overriding factor?

A lot of Irish Fans Will be Forced to Pay Extra to Pick Up NBC Sports Network

This isn't a huge issue for me personally (I already have Versus), but you will hear people complaining about it, and it will likely be the biggest issue in the media.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune article, Versus is currently in 72 million homes across the United States compared to about 100 million for ESPN. Not a huge gap to be sure, but still a sizable chunk that will force thousands of fans to make some tough financial choices regarding their cable set up.

What’s in this for Notre Dame Exactly?

This is the crucial question that needs to be answered by Swarbrick and Co.

It’s understandable that it doesn’t sit right with some people that Notre Dame is being used to try and build up this new NBC Sports Network and forcing fans to add the channel in their homes if they do not already have it.

Prior to joining NBC Sports, Lazarus was the President of Media & Marketing for the Atlanta-based company CSE, as well as the President of Turner Entertainment Group helping to build up the networks, TBS, TNT, TCM, TruTV, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, and more.

It has always been a distinct comfort for an entire generation of fans to know that all Irish home games will be on NBC, but now this news turns that comfort into chaos a little bit. Perhaps it's not the end of the world (#FirstWorldProblems) but now fans will have to double check and make sure NBC Sports is available wherever they plan on watching the game, whereas in the past it was simply a given.

So, will Notre Dame receive extra money from NBC for moving these games? If not, what incentive do the Irish have for making the move and getting paid the same amount of money and being a part of a somewhat risky undertaking?

What are the long-term plans inherent in such a move?

Can NBC Sports Network Really Rival ESPN?

This is another very important question because now Notre Dame’s interests are directly tied to whether this new venture by Comcast succeeds or fails.

I’m very skeptical of this working, at least in the sense of truly being a rival to ESPN. That's not to say that the NBC Sports Network can't be successful to some degree, but they have a large mountain to climb in order to compete with ESPN, ABC, and Disney.

NBC Sports will have very little exposure in the world of the NFL (although Sunday Night Football is a decent foothold), NBA, and Major League Baseball. And despite NBC Sports signing a 3-year deal to broadcast 45 Major League Soccer games, ESPN is already ahead of the game with the English Premier League and World Cup coverage.

Unless there’s massive changes and truly big long-term plans for NBC Sports, I don’t see how Olympic, NHL, and Notre Dame coverage, plus a bevy of outdoor programs and lukewarm MLS coverage will be much competition for ESPN.

NBC has been struggling financially as a company, with their television shows, and perception around the country. They have been hemorrhaging money with the Olympics and once again over-paid for the games in the coming decade, making it almost a certainty that they lose millions more.

Should we expect a downtrodden NBC to suddenly reverse its fortunes and compete with the biggest media giant of our age in ESPN/ABC?

It seems very optimistic that Versus, soon-to-be NBC Sports Network, is ever going to rival ESPN. Is it really a smart idea for Notre Dame to align itself with something that is likely to fail?

The Positives

Comcast Really Likes Us!

As much as it might sting to move some games to cable, this is a clear indication from Comcast that they are serious about their relationship with Notre Dame and they believe Fighting Irish football will be a big selling point for their new efforts with NBC Sports Network.

Some were worried that Comcast wasn’t going to have the same relationship with Notre Dame that the Irish enjoyed for 20 years with the previous NBC Sports management, but it has been made clear that it is every bit as good, if not better.

There was also a lot of chatter that Notre Dame would be moving to a different network once the contract with NBC expires in 2015, the bases for that argument being that the new Comcast ownership probably wasn't as comfortable with Notre Dame as Ebersol & Co. were.

With this news, it appears that Notre Dame is likely sticking with NBC for the long-term.

This Signals a Change---Even if We Don’t Know Exactly What Kind of Change

To put it another way, NBC’s coverage of Notre Dame football has been awful for years. Maybe this news doesn’t change that right away, perhaps we're still a year or two away from having better football coverage of the Irish, but it’s still a sign that Comcast is willing to do something different at least.

If they are truly concerned with being a rival to ESPN and using Irish football as one of the main ingredients to such a business plan, then ditching Tom Hammond and improving the poor college football broadcast presentation currently on NBC might be a good idea.

We can only hope, right?

There’s a Larger Plan at Work Behind All of This

Once again we need to see what Swarbrick and others from Notre Dame and NBC have to say about this.

If this is a step, or perhaps a diversion, in Notre Dame’s ultimate goal of creating their own sports network then great.

Help us out here Jack---what's going on?

If these one or two games are going to bring the Irish a lot more money than they otherwise would have from airing on NBC, then that is a positive.

It could very well turn out that Notre Dame football becomes dominant again, the NBC Sports Channel becomes super popular, and everyone involved is smiling ear to ear as we enter a reborn golden age for both the Irish football program and the Peacock.

What Does it All Mean?

It’s far too early to tell, but it appears this will not be going into effect until at least the 2012 football season.

NBC will be covering next year's summer Olympic games in London and that should serve as the major launching point for the new NBC Sports Network. Less than a month after the Olympics end, Notre Dame's football season will begin under this new arrangement.

We heard recently from Swarbrick that a future Notre Dame channel was not likely to be in the mold of a traditional cable program because of the difficulties of providing such a channel to theFighting Irish fan base spread out all over the country.

So why hitch such a large part of the future to a new cable channel that is trying to slay Goliath?

Is moving a game or two per season really seen as a big gamble from the university’s eyes?

Is there any legitimate concern about alienating fans or being part of an organization that fall to its knees spending billions of dollars and still unable to compete with ESPN?

Even if Notre Dame ends up with its own channel (in whatever form of media it is built), it is more than likely that Irish football games are going to stay on NBC, or some major network. So, in that sense this might not be a big deal to Swarbrick, who could use the extra income from moving a couple games to NBC Sports Network, to invest in building the future ND Network.

Does Swarbrick see this venture to NBC Sports Network as harmless and not an impediment to his larger vision of the future of Notre Dame athletics?

Is this the first step of ultimately putting all Notre Dame home football games on cable after 2015?

And what games do they plan on moving over to NBC Sports?

The best ones?

Mediocre ones?

If NBC Sports is serious about building their channel, you would think they are going to shoot for the top two home games each season. The home games for 2012 include: Purdue, Michigan, Stanford, BYU, Pittsburgh, and WakeForest.

Returning the favor from this year and hosting Michigan for a night game next September seems like a pretty good idea. If grabbing the best games really is their goal, then the neutral site game against Miami at Soldier Field would likely be targeted as well since it would be on NBC anyway.

We just need to know more about what the long-term plans are.

How committed is Notre Dame to making the NBC Sports Network a viable rival to ESPN? Is that something Notre Dame wants to get into?

Will Notre Dame "go with this" plan for four years and then negotiate a different model when the NBC contract expires in 2015?

Will they entertain NBC Sports Network's desires for a few years---giving the university enough time and money to build their own channel---and then simply ask for all of the home games to go back on the Peacock if it’s clear NBC Sports Network isn’t going anywhere any time soon?

Will there be added content in the form of pre and post-game shows, coaches’ show, etc. on NBC Sports Network that will serve as a trial balloon for Notre Dame’s own network?

Can we even expect NBC Sports Channel to make a dent in ESPN’s monopoly in only five years?

Even if Comcast values Notre Dame’s football brand, does moving a couple games really hurt the university’s prestige? Or is this step one to building a bigger and better future?

All we have are a lot of questions and very few answers.

We’ll just have to wait for Savvy Jack to put our minds at ease.