Fighting Irish TV, a streaming platform of Notre Dame Athletics content, is available starting today on more than 8,000 devices such as Amazon Fire, Apple TV and smart televisions with access to the Google Play store.
The service will provide highlights, interviews and radio shows, but its crown jewel is The Vault, a compendium of Notre Dame football home games broadcast on NBC since 1991.
Fred Villarruel, digital platform manager, said this offering will have no peer among universities.
“Even if you found something similar, you’re just going to find a lot of news, a lot of interviews, some highlights and that kind of stuff,” he said in a phone interview Monday. “What we’re doing is completely unique because not everyone has that exclusivity with their home games.”
While Notre Dame Athletics always planned to launch an “over-the-top” (OTT) service — think Hulu, Netflix or HBO Max, but free — the nationwide pandemic suggested that that such an offering would be well received.
The decision to host Saturday night “watch parties” last spring was a “on the fly” decision, said Villarruel.
“We have these games sitting there. I’m sure people would love to watch them. Let’s try it out,” he said. When Villarruel studied the analytics, he found that fans were “using their television as the device of the preference. And they’re engaging with the video content for a long time. It kind of made sense to say, ‘Hey, let’s really look at this OTT platform.”
At launch, Fighting Irish TV will include complete versions of more than 80 home games from the Holtz to Kelly eras. The service will also be available to watch some live events, such as the March 31 Pro Day for NFL scouts.
“Starting in April, we’ll be releasing a new archived season and then every week we’ll release one game from that season,” said Villarruel. “As far as original content goes, yes, we develop a lot of coaches shows and that kind of stuff. But we’re thinking bigger. We’re thinking episodic-type content. So that’s the kind of stuff we’re talking about eventually getting to.” While coaches and administrators may play a role in those series, Villarruel predicted the offerings would be more student-athlete driven.
Fighting Irish Media has used YouTube for more than a decade to distribute its content; Villarruel says they won’t be ditching that platform, but thinks fans might gravitate instead to the new service.
“If I can download something to my television that’s all Notre Dame, all the time, and I can easily search and create an account and add playlists of what I like and it’s going to give me suggestions, I’m going to use that over YouTube,” he said, “because you have less control from a user experience [there].”
Villarruel said he’s helped conceptualize Fighting Irish TV with fan satisfaction at the forefront, which wasn’t an easy headspace to occupy. Villarruel is the son of a Purdue graduate, and matriculated from the West Lafayette university himself.
“Obviously, when I went to Purdue, it was, ‘OK, I don’t really like Notre Dame,’ but I always knew what a special place it is. I mean, you’d have to be silly to not know just how incredible it is,” he said. “And I remember the first time I even came to campus for my interview and I was just like, ‘Wow, this is completely different.’ It’s a pretty amazing place.”
Like Villarruel’s other projects, Fighting Irish TV won’t remain static. While there is no set timeline, he will be working on making it available on Roku, on mobile phones and on the web. As for advertising, Villarruel says, “first and foremost, what we go by is user experience. Yeah, it’s nice to make revenue off of it, but that’s not what our goal is with this.”
When Notre Dame Athletics hired Villarruel three years ago, the team had three “big projects”: a redesign of UND.com (which was launched in June 2019 with new partner WMT), a mobile app (in October 2020) and what is now Fighting Irish TV.
Villarruel managed Fighting Irish Live during 2020 football gamedays from his home. The event, routinely the most viewed piece of content on UND.com, included a 20-minute pre-game segment with Mike Golic Jr. and Sydney Sims, live stats, social media posts from beat reporters and national media, a running photo gallery and a player of the game poll.
This year, UND.com player bios will undergo a complete redesign to raise visibility of each student-athlete. Instead of static pages that get updated at season’s end, Villarruel says bios will have photos and videos, key stats and social media information. If Jack Coan throws a touchdown against Florida State, the statistics on his bio page will update automatically instead of relying on a sports information director to revise the page after the game.
When the pandemic severely limited in-stadium attendance, Notre Dame introduced Rally House — a $15-per-game watch party with notable Irish alums — to virtually recreate some of the fan-to-fan experience. Jodain Massad, athletics executive producer for innovation and design, was the driving force behind that initiative.
Rally House will survive into a post-pandemic existence, but may become more integrated with UND.com, Villarruel said.
Notre Dame Global Partnerships, which manages the sales and marketing opportunities for Irish athletics, also launched the Fighting Irish Pub Network last year. The app is a directory of all known Irish gamewatch gatherings across the country and is separate from the Fighting Irish phone app that Villarruel helped launch to increase Notre Dame’s use of mobile ticketing.
The digital platform manager said he thinks Fighting Irish TV is a worthy addition to any home set, but is looking forward to feedback after today’s launch.
“We’re always thinking about our fans, how to engage them and how to make a great experience for them. In the time that I’ve been here to launch some of these new platforms, you see that it’s been a lot better user experience,” Villarruel said. “There’s still obviously a lot that we can do in the ways that we could go, but this stuff doesn’t happen overnight when you go from how traditional Notre Dame is and how long things have been going the way they’ve gone.”