Rebuilding a Brand, Part II: Let Me Check My Schedule
Having burned the football bridge, I shall now attempt to cross it by suggesting the basketball program take a page from the gridiron hymnal in this rebuilding effort.
Years upon years ago, Knute Rockne built the ND football brand by barnstorming across the country. This ensured his nascent Fighting Irish program could be seen all over and plant a seed in the minds of fans. Those seeds grew into one of the most rabid fandoms ever seen in sport. Kevin White recently talked about neutral-site football games to recapture that spirit for the alumni and fans.
That used to be the basketball program's plan as well. New Year's games in Chicago against Northwestern. Annual trips to alumni strongholds like Dallas, Los Angeles, and the Northeast. Holiday games in Louisville against Kentucky powerhouses.
OK, that last one was because Adolph Rupp was a coward, but the point remains: Lots of people got to see ND basketball up close and personal. If it wasn't at their local basketball venue, it was on television thanks to Eddie Einhorn and the TVS empire.
A lot changed over the 20 years beteween 1980 and 2000, and when it came to adapting to and dealing with those changes, ND was more on the cliff's edge than the cutting edge. To rebuild their brand, they need to get back there.
The television aspect is already decent, and with the new Big East TV contract, it's going to get better. ND basketball fans will be able to watch every conference game on one of ESPN's outlets. The contract also has non-conference aspects, but we'll have to wait and see there. There's hope the stranglehold ESPN has had on non-conference contests will be relaxed.
The Internet aspect is good and improving. Free audio streams of Jack & Phonz are already available on UND.com, and word is they'll be adding even more non-conference game video streams next season. UND also carries audio and video of press conferences as well as the Mike Brey show, so there's no shortage of coverage for the savvy electronic maven.
Unfortunately, media coverage is only (or some might say, less than) half the battle. Most of the people who will watch those games are already fans. Notre Dame needs to reach out and start regrowing its fanbase, and the best way to do that is via its schedule.
The 2006-07 schedule, to be kind, sucked dog meat. Way too many home games against no-name teams. Way too many home games while the students weren't on campus. Way too many uninteresting matchups. As a result, I'm not sure I've seen 11,418 announced as an attendance yet, and while that many tickets may have been sold for a game thus far, I find it unlikely that many fannies were in the seats.
So, how to improve?
First, let's review some facts:
- Teams are allowed 28 games per season with a 30-game cap
- Conference tournaments no longer count against the maximum
- The Big East will go to 18 conference games next season, meaning teams can schedule 10 non-conference games
Get UCLA back on the schedule. That game was a natural for decades. I can see why the Bruins might not want to travel during the Pac10 season, so let's make it an early-season made-for-television matchup. Play the games in LA Thanksgiving Friday (the night before the football team plays SC there), and play the games in SB the Sunday before Thanksgiving at noon (which will oftentimes be the day after a home football contest, meaning people might stick around). If the games are pinned to specific dates, people will start scheduling around them, making them a stronger event.
Keep Indiana off the schedule. The losing streak and road-loss streak are done, so it's as good a time as any for a break. There's no such thing as a home court advantage when ND plays the Hoosiers at the JC. There are a number of other Integer teams we should be looking to get, including Michigan State (fourth-most played team ever, but haven't played them regular season since 1975 and at all since 1979), Illinois, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Home-and-homes or 1-1-1 contracts rotating between those squads makes for captivating schedules.
Utilize invitational tournaments. The "two-in-four" rule, which limited a team to two appearances in exempted preseason tournaments every four seasons, has blowed up real good. Notre Dame is the kind of program that will benefit from the change, because their name recognition will be a big plus to tournaments such as the Guardians Classic (or whatever they're calling it now). They're also advantageous in that they give ND up to three actual games while only dinging them for one against the maximum, and usually at least one of those games is a manageable win and at least one is a quality opponent on a non-home floor.
I feel like I'm cheating suggesting this, because based on future schedule discussions, ND is already looking to go down this road. The Fighting Irish will be playing in the USVI Tournament next season and the Maui Classic the season after that. Word is a return to the PNIT is scheduled four years from now, and the Guardians would like them for the season in between. The Great Alaska Shootout hasn't seen ND in quite a while, and new exempted tournaments are springing up all over the place these days.
Barnstorm. The football team is putting packages together to get itself in front of alumni. No reason the basketball team can't do the same thing. And they should do what they used to do -- travel over the holidays.
As I said, there were too many home games this season overall, and particularly too many while the students were away on break. A student-free Joyce Center doesn't have a good potential for atmosphere, even with the non-student fans getting as involved as they can.
But other strong alumni areas might have better atmospheres. Students are home on break. Families are looking for things to do together. And a hotel is a hotel, so it shouldn't matter much to the team where they are.
The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee is also starting to look at strength of schedule as a determining factor for bids. Loading up on home games, as the Fighting Irish did this season, will start to hurt the team in their efforts to get a high tournament seed, let alone a bid in the first place. Road or neutral site games might help the tournament resume.
Digger used to promise recruits at least one "home game" during their four-year career. Granted, it was easier to do as an independent with 15+ variable games to toss around, but it might be a nice carrot for Mike Brey & company.
Some places the team should consider, based on the size of their alumni clubs:
- Chicago. Every New Year's Eve, Notre Dame and Northwestern used to play at the old Chicago Stadium. It became an event in and of itself. Playing the Wildcats at the United Center would be a good draw. Perhaps Wisconsin would agree to a 1-1-1 with the third game at the UC or the new Sears Center in the northwest suburbs. Other neutral-site possibilities would be Illinois State or Northern Illinois, both of whom would probably accept a Chicago game in lieu of a home date.
- Detroit. Notre Dame / Michigan State at Ford Field. Definitely wouldn't be neutral, but it'd be interesting. If not that, I'm sure they could work something out at the Palace and bring in a local school.
- Los Angeles/San Francisco. I already talked about LA with the Bruins, but USC is another interesting possibility. Plus there's no shortage of candidates from the California college system. Up north, Cal and Stanford are logical choices, as would be long-ago foe San Francisco.
- Washington, D.C.. While Georgetown games would cover this area, it's not guaranteed Notre Dame would play them in D.C. every year. The occasional matchup with Maryland would be nice, as would George Washington.
- Boston. BC's departure from the league has left a bit of a void in this area of New England. I'd bet UMass or Holy Cross would love a game at the Garden.
- Dallas. Texas isn't the most fertile recruiting ground for ND basketball, but Carlton Scott is coming on board and it'd be nice to give him a game in front of the home crowd. Plenty of choices, from Texas to SMU.
- Atlanta. A matchup with the Bulldogs would draw a lot of attention. Or perhaps Florida would agree to a neutral-site contest
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