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Column: Why Notre Dame needs the ACC to save its own brand

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A decline in brand equity means a necessary shift in strategy. 

NCAA Football: Camping World Bowl-Notre Dame vs Iowa State Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The concept of sports franchises and teams as brands has been bubbling subtly under the surface of many of the conversations surrounding sports this summer, both in light of COVID-19 and systemic racism in the U.S. Obviously it’s not of primary, secondary or even tertiary concern, but it is interesting to consider how this underlying and oft unrecognizable brand loyalty has worked against progressing toward a better future in sports.

The most obvious example was the conversation surrounding the Washington Football Team’s (formerly Redskins’) long-overdue name change this summer. How many people did you hear say “they’ve always been the Redskins. What’s the big deal?” What these folks are really saying is they identify with a brand and branding that’s remained static almost since its founding — at least when it comes to naming, logo and traditions.

Then there’s the consideration of no fans in stadiums. Yeah, that’s a huge bummer for a lot of reasons (so wear your masks, people), but there’s also the subtle component of fanbases contributing to sports brands, and how maybe a less-than-full Ohio Stadium wouldn’t feel like an Ohio State game at all. There’s a reason the NBA invested in building a digital fan base for its return to basketball bubble.

I could go on for hours. Really, I could: My day job is in marketing. The discussion around branding in sports is fascinating, in particular because of the brand loyalty it evokes. Consider the fire that comes to each of your bellies when you see a fellow Ohio State fan in Disney World (not now, obviously) or the irrational rage you feel when you witness someone in maize and blue with the AUDACITY to be walking down High Street.

Which obviously begs the question: Where is the brand equity for these teams built? For Ohio State, we have visuals and associations that build symbolism. For example, as an Ohio State fan, what do you associate the colors “scarlet and gray” with? How do you feel about a man with a giant light-and-dark brown nut for a head? Is “horseshoe” a game or a place? These parts have been drilled into our conscience for years by watching the Buckeyes play on TV, living in Columbus and seeing flags everywhere, and going to Graeter’s and getting Buckeye Blitz ice cream, ultimately building the aforementioned associations.

These components also build loyalty and a community around that loyalty, because brands can be badges you use to express yourself (looking at you, Apple people). You might think you are just wearing your Woody Hayes classic black Ohio State hat because it looks cool, but you’re also linking back to the symbolism it expresses and projecting that as an indication of who you are.

Which brings us to why this topic is interesting and relevant now. If we were to build a Mount Rushmore of college football brands, there is a limited set of the 130 FBS teams who would even be marked for consideration for inclusion in those coveted spots. My personal bias aside, few could argue against including Ohio State as one of those brands (my Michigan fan husband agrees). Alabama surely tops the list in the SEC, while USC, Texas and Oklahoma also have strong arguments in their favor. Schools like Florida, Michigan, Clemson, Miami, Florida State, Nebraska and a slew of others are firmly on that second tier.

Because I know I’m ruffling a lot of feathers, I want to clarify that when I’m talking about a “brand” in this sense, I’m not actually talking about who is good and bad at football. I’m talking about those associations I mentioned earlier - the recognition, for example, of a Michigan fan from a mile away because of that distinct and horrid color scheme, or of a Browns fan for an equally distinct yet warm, kind and inviting palate (am I being biased here?), or of Nebraska’s block N, Florida’s gator or the longhorn logo of Texas. For the teams mentioned above, those associations are strong to the point that particular shades of blue and yellow - just colors on a palate - suddenly mean something when put together.

Back to the topic at hand. You’ll notice there is a notable absence from the top tier; a team so fiercely independent and yet so inconsequential that it’s managed to fall from grace.

Yep. It’s Notre Dame.

Once among the most powerful brands in sports, Notre Dame has lost significant brand equity in recent years. We could cite the decline of the influence of the Catholic church in the U.S. as a factor in reducing the reach of the historically Catholic university as a brand. Contributing to the decline in reach, and the crux of this column, is also the fact Notre Dame remained and, after 2020, could return to being an independent. In fact, the Fighting Irish have built their brand equity on being so inherently sought after and worthwhile that they were above being part of a mere conference like these other mere mortal football programs.

So how has this brand impacted the Fighting Irish on the field?

Ohio State doesn’t win a national championship every year, but it sure as heck vies for and wins most conference championships in the Big Ten. Teams in the Power-5 are similar, in that even if they don’t win the Playoff, which only one team can win in a given season, they have chances to win conferences or divisions or boast conference players of the year.

A real area where these banners have impact is in recruiting. The consideration set for recruits isn’t limited to CFP teams, but for top recruits, it is often limited to those schools who compete year in and year out to win something - like a conference title. That’s why Ohio State crushes Michigan in recruiting every year. That’s why James Franklin has Penn State creeping up the recruiting rankings in recent years.

Notre Dame? Not in the top 10 in recruiting. In fact, Notre Dame hasn’t had a higher than 10th-ranked recruiting class since 2013 (fifth) — the year after the Irish’s embarrassing loss to Bama in the BCS title game.

Notre Dame recruits like the third or fourth best team in the Big Ten. In fact, if they were in the Big Ten, they would have been in fourth place, just ahead of Nebraska, in 2020. When you’re not getting the talent to play for a national title and you don’t have any conference banners to hang your hat on, the recruiting pitch tends to fall back on history. The problem with that strategy is that Notre Dame’s most recent national title was in 1988. Their most recent Heisman winner (Tim Brown) won the trophy in 1987.

Of course, the Irish football team is not helped by the stringent academic standards which might keep out a four- or five-star recruit — one who would otherwise attend Ohio State or Michigan.

There’s also an impact of this independence on scheduling. Unlike Power-5 teams, who are something of known entities and whose schedules can be generally racked and stacked by the end of a given season, Notre Dame remains a mystery. The Irish boast of their standing rivalries - USC, Navy, Stanford - and their other scheduling nuances which pit the Irish against many Power-5 schools year in and year out, but the fact is that teams like Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State have to play teams like Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State for nine weeks of the year. (Maybe even 10! We’ll see how this season goes I guess). It’s not hard to recognize that, on the whole, Ohio State, Clemson, Alabama and any other Power-5 team that wins its conference has played a more challenging schedule than the hodge-podge Notre Dame puts forth every season.

This equity, built on independence, on panache, on being the top destination for recruits in the midwest, has not kept up with the times. The rest of college football consolidated, leaving the Fighting Irish on the outskirts. The squeaky wheel lost a lot of what credibility it had remaining when it fell to Clemson in the CFP in 2018.

You’ll notice that, at the outset, I said that the brand wasn’t about who was good and who was bad at football, but that those points are what I’m arguing have been the downfall of Notre Dame. For comparison, consider Nebraska: another great college football brand who was also last good decades ago. Nebraska was sitting in a floundering Big 12 conference before shifting to the Big Ten, building a new market of rivals (cough, Iowa) and growing its brand recognition to a new region of the country. Nebraska hasn’t won any more national titles, but the Huskers made an appearance in a Big Ten Championship game and have continued to extend their brand rather than losing equity by remaining in the Big 12.

It took a global pandemic that threatened the college football season for Notre Dame to recognize the financial disaster awaiting its programs. While other conferences quickly made the jump to conference-only seasons, the Fighting Irish became the odd team out. Even the service academies, with two independents in Army and Navy, were guaranteed a couple games in 2020.

If it chose to remain in the ACC, Notre Dame would have the opportunity to regain some brand equity by reaching a new base and possibly even by winning some games and conference titles. But they’d have to rethink the fundamentals of what’s built their equity - since being a fiercely independent being is what led to its shrinking influence in the first place.