Retail items bearing the Notre Dame logo or leprechaun mascot are also a hit in the $4.6 billion market for licensed college merchandise. From July 1, 2012, through June 30, 2013, the Catholic school grew into the third-biggest seller, behind Texas and Alabama but ahead of No. 4 Michigan, according to IMG College's Collegiate Licensing Co.
Last year, Notre Dame ranked ninth trailing: Texas; Alabama; Kentucky; Florida; Michigan; LSU; North Carolina; and Georgia.
In terms of corporate sponsorships, Notre Dame is the gold standard. The athletic department's national sponsors include: Adidas, Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Gatorade, Sprint and Xerox. An undefeated regular season helped ad sales on campus too. The football game program sold 20 more full-page ads this year, at a price of $12,700 a pop, said John Heisler, senior associate athletics director.
Notre Dame home games have been sold out since the 1960s. That's created a lucrative market for resold tickets. Like the New York Yankees, the Fighting Irish are the team other fans love to hate. That makes them just as big a draw on the road.
Notre Dame kicked off the 2013 season with the most expensive average prices in college football, according to Jesse Lawrence, chief executive officer of TiqIQ. (At $237.63, they've dropped to third behind Michigan at $263.89 and Ohio State at $249.37.) On a dollar basis, Notre Dame's average ticket prices rose more than any team this season, he said.
"If you're looking to resell Notre Dame tickets, you're making a lot more money than you did in the past."
SeatGeek is seeing more demand too, said spokesman Connor Gregoire. With an average price of $230, Notre Dame tickets are up 26 percent from $183 last season and 45 percent from a $158 average in 2011.
In fact, Notre Dame's average price trails only Texas A&M (and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny "Football" Manziel's) $241, said SeatGeek. But the Aggies average was mostly driven by the eye-popping $639 price for a single home game: The team's 49-42 loss to the Tide on Sept. 14.
The most expensive Notre Dame game is yet to come. Prices are averaging $417 for the team's home game in South Bend, Ind., against the visiting USC Trojans on Oct. 19. The average price for Oklahoma closed at $347.
In terms of demand (sales/page views), the Irish rank third this year behind the Wolverines and Aggies, according to Barbara Shannon of StubHub. They were fifth at the same point last year.
A rising economic tide lifts all boats. Notre Dame's also helped by the growing financial clout of college sports. Between ticket sales, media rights, corporate sponsorships and everything else, college sports now generate $7.2 billion in annual revenue, according to Ben Sutton Jr., president of IMG College. Football is the economic engine, producing about 70 percent of total revenues, say experts.
Those kinds of dollars put college sports in the ballpark with the biggest pro sports leagues, such as the NFL ($10 billion), MLB ($7.5 billion) and the NBA ($5.5 billion).
The fractured, decentralized sport of college football could finally realize its potential when the hated Bowl Championship Series (BCS) format (which relies on polls and computer rankings to determine the two teams playing for the national championship) is replaced by a four-team playoff in 2014 that will settle things on the field.
"College sports are big business—and growing bigger," said Sutton. "There's a lot of opportunity for brands to connect to 190 million passionate fans."
Michael McCarthy covers sports business for Advertising Age in New York. He's been a sportswriter for USA TODAY, Newsday, the NFL and SportsBizUSA. Follow him on Twitter