The most loved, hated college football team is ...
Former Notre Dame football coach Dan Devine used to say there's two kinds of people: Notre Dame lovers and Notre Dame haters. Brace yourself haters the Fighting Irish have surpassed the Ohio State Buckeyes as the most popular team in the $5 billion college football industry.
After losing 35-21 to the Oklahoma Sooners at home last Saturday, the 3-2 Fighting Irish have dropped out of the Associated Press Top 25 poll. But guess what? Notre Dame still ranks No. 1 off the field with fans nationwide, according to Harris Interactive. It's the team's national popularity that's helping drive higher ticket, retail and advertising sales off the field, where financial results matter more than wins and losses.
Notre Dame's popularity has less to do with so-so performance this year and more with its unbeaten 12-0 regular season, and losing trip to the national championship game, last season.
The Fighting Irish jumped to No. 1 from No. 5 in a nationwide poll of 2,045 adults by Harris in August. Those poll numbers still hold up because they're determined by the national brands college football fans pick as their "favorites," said Regina Corso, senior vice president of Harris.
Irish fans and alumni are still basking in the glow from their team's return to the top of college football last year, she said. In fact, four of the Top 10 most popular teams—Notre Dame, Texas, Penn State and Wisconsin—are not in the AP Top 25 as the current regular season nears the midpoint.
The Fighting Irish are "like the Dallas Cowboys. They're always going to be America's Team," Corso said.
Win or lose, Notre Dame fans are everywhere. The storied football program that inspired Hollywood films from "Rudy" to "Knute Rockne All American" was the only one to finish in the Top 10 across all four regions: Northeast, South, Midwest and West.
The Buckeyes, last year's most popular, dropped to No. 3, according to Harris. Their Big Ten rivals, the Michigan Wolverines, leapfrogged them to finish No. 2 from No. 3 last year. Last year's No. 2, Penn State's Nittany Lions, dropped to No. 5. The Texas Longhorns remained unchanged at No. 4.
What about the Crimson Tide of Alabama, which pummeled Notre Dame 42-14 on Jan. 7, 2013, for its second straight national championship? They jumped to No. 6 from No. 16.
The University of Notre Dame announced Monday that its endowment grew to $8.3 billion for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2013. That's up 11.8 percent from $7.4 billion the year before.
But the true windfall from Notre Dame's return to gridiron prominence won't be known until the school releases numbers on Oct. 15.
But consider these profit/loss numbers from last year's Equity in Athletics data released by the U.S. Department of Education.
Before, during and after a disappointing 2011 season in which the Irish went 8-5 and lost to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl, the football program still managed to generate $69 million of the athletic department's combined revenue of $97 million from July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2012.
With expenses of $26 million, football turned a profit of $43 million.
Those profits single-handedly subsidized the rest of the money-losing teams on campus—including the men's and women's basketball teams, which lost nearly $4 million combined. The University of Notre Dame's overall operating budget was nearly $1.2 billion, with an endowment of $7 billion.
Notre Dame spokesman Dennis Brown declined to comment on financial metrics. But business partners such as NBC Sports (which commissioned the Harris Poll) make no bones about the school's football comeback helping their bottom lines.
NBC is a sister network of CNBC, both of which are units of NBC Universal.
To the resentment of rivals, the Golden Domers are the only team with their own national TV deal. On Madison Avenue, NBC has been able to charge higher ad rates for Notre Dame home football games this season. Under a national deal that runs through the 2015 season, NBC televises all seven home games, plus an eighth off-site contest in prime time.
"I wish we had twice as many games," said Seth Winter, executive vice president of sales for NBC Sports Group.
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 @MMcCarthyREV.