The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are not alone in confronting a problem with attendance in recent years - the sport overall has seen declining live attendance for years now, a trend that predates the COVID-19 pandemic. While Notre Dame remains an attractive bucket-list destination for college football fans, it does seem to have some trouble motivating its own fans to show consistently. Notable episodes include the 2021 home opener - in which the first Irish home game to be open to the public in two years was short about 20,000 seats - and multiple instances of opposing fan bases, usually clad in red, effectively taking over the stadium. One can write the latter off as unavoidable when it happens with Georgia or Nebraska, but Cincinnati is a sign of a trend.
Relatedly, Notre Dame also has a crowd noise problem - specifically, not making enough of it. This is commonly attributed to the more reserved nature of Notre Dame fans and a lack of iconic home matchups in recent years, but shrinking attendance can only set back the intimidation factor in a stadium that once made opposing teams unable to snap the ball.
At the same time as these trends have developed, Notre Dame has continued to raise ticket prices, decrease capacity and develop more luxury experiences within Notre Dame Stadium (the latter have proliferated since the completion of the Campus Crossroads project in 2017). This seemingly paradoxical response is in fact common across college and professional sports - avoiding price concessions by instead investing in customer experience so as to justify a higher price.
While this approach has been successful in many segments of sports, Notre Dame is going to have difficulty filling the stadium so long as it applies it. The reasons for this are threefold:
- Notre Dame cannot rely on students and alumni to the same extent as other schools because of its size. Notre Dame’s entire student body, including both undergraduate and graduate students, numbers approximately 13,000, or 16% of stadium capacity. This small size also means that at any given time there are fewer alumni who are looking to take a trip back to campus for the game.
- At the same time that it is smaller - if more passionate and tight-knit - than other alumni networks, Notre Dame’s is also geographically diffuse, with decent-sized clusters in cities all over the country. While there are certainly a large number of alumni within driving distance of Notre Dame, almost everyone who travels back to campus for a game is looking at an overnight stay and a significant number are also purchasing airline tickets, bringing the price of a weekend trip near the $1,000 mark. This burden is equally present for the (probably larger) contingent of “Subway Alumni,” or Notre Dame fans who did not attend the school and are not local to South Bend, and it is a huge part of what makes selling tickets such an attractive option for the particular set of Notre Dame fans who are out-of-town season-ticket holders.
- The economic profile of Notre Dame’s surrounding community does not support overwhelming demand for tickets by residents who are not directly affiliated with the school as students, faculty, administrators, etc., at the current price. This is not a slight to South Bend, which has done much to confront and recover from the struggles it has faced in a post-industrial landscape, but rather a failure on the part of Notre Dame to calibrate its ticket prices in response to the price sensitivities of its immediate market.
My proposed solution to this problem is that Notre Dame do what it has historically done best, which is buck the trends in the larger world of college sports and open itself up to a broader segment of fans. In layman’s terms: respond to demand and bring ticket prices down where possible, while maintaining high-quality amenities and exclusive experiences for fans who are willing to pay more. Make it an easy choice for younger and/or less-wealthy alumni to make that trip for a football weekend, or for a local family to drive over to campus on a Saturday afternoon just because.
Encouragingly, we saw Notre Dame take a limited step in this direction last year with the release of the Shamrock Pass. The $500 pass gives a fan a ticket to each home game, but without a guarantee of location - the spot is different each week. This probably isn’t enough, but it’s a recognition on the part of the University that a pool of price-sensitive potential ticket-buyers exists, and they are interested in finding ways to reach them.
Would Notre Dame make less money on football tickets if it adopted this strategy on a broader basis? Certainly. But it would gain something else, something its leadership has recently professed to care about a great deal: a step toward preserving the college-sports experience. College sports have always been grittier than professional sports, they have always been cheaper, and they have always been about the love of their community - both alumni and the local area. Notre Dame should lean into this aspect of the fan experience and open itself up. You might make less money, but you’d get a louder crowd and a happier fanbase; a better relationship with neighboring South Bend and Mishiwaka as more local families make going to games a tradition; maybe more people willing to see you play Toledo and Tennessee State; and hey, more people who are bidding for tickets and willing to hold onto them the next time a big-name team in red comes to town. Food for thought, Jack and Fr. John - if you want to keep college sports special, you can start by putting your money where your mouth is.