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No. 13 Notre Dame hopes Dublin game against Navy helps expand international fan base

Your Tuesday Roundup: August 22, 2023
Your Tuesday Roundup: August 22, 2023 07:54

Notre Dame is on a mission.

Beat Navy, yes, but it has been 11 years since Notre Dame last played in Ireland. There is a whole new generation of potential fans to convert on the Emerald Isle and beyond. Already an iconic brand in the United States, Notre Dame gets an opportunity to grow internationally when it takes on the Midshipmen at Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday.

"Our goal here is to expand the brand and bring Notre Dame to the world," said Aaron Horvath, an athletics department spokesman and brand specialist.

Making it easy to watch games is one way to do it, so Notre Dame is making Irish home games free to stream for international fans via Fighting Irish TV, which last year cost $35 for the season.

Notre Dame, which is ranked No. 13 in the AP Top 25, has played in Dublin twice before but this is the first "home" game the Irish are staging abroad. They're bringing some South Bend flavor along with more than 30,000 fans.

That doesn't leave too much space at Aviva for the locals, but hearts and minds can also be won at uniquely American game-week activities like a pep rally and tailgate party, plus a Mass at Dublin Castle on Saturday morning. The whole thing is also a boost to the Irish economy.

For Europe — and likely anywhere outside the U.S. — American football means the NFL. Most people probably know the Super Bowl, Tom Brady, the Dallas Cowboys.

Conference realignment, grad transfers and NIL? Not so much. Don't expect the average European sports fan to know Notre Dame's eight national championships in football are second only to Alabama (12), though maybe they will recognize the Fighting Irish nickname or the leprechaun mascot.

"It is important to remember that the U.S. is literally the only country on the planet where we intertwine higher education and big-time athletics, so it is fundamentally against the nature of a European or Asian to associate Notre Dame with any type of current or historical athletic success," said sports economist Victor Matheson, a professor at the College of the Holy Cross. "This makes using athletics as branding for the university far more difficult in Europe."

Don't forget, too, that soccer is the top sport just about everywhere. France striker and World Cup star Kylian Mbappé has 107 million followers on Instagram; Notre Dame football has under 395,000.

Still, the Fighting Irish are a big brand.

"Our competitors in branding are the Yankees, they're the Lakers, they're the Cowboys," Horvath said. "The Notre Dame monogram is one of the strongest logos in the United States and maybe in the world when you think about it from a sporting perspective."

Notre Dame is private and doesn't disclose its merchandise sales. Figures from Fanatics show that in 2023, Notre Dame has been the second best-selling NCAA university — back-to-back national champion Georgia is No. 1 — across the company's sites, spokesman Seth Schlechter said.

Fighting Irish merchandise has been sold in 50 countries, he added. Neither Fanatics nor Notre Dame offered more figures that would indicate any international trends.

Football isn't the only American sport pushing into Europe. Major League Baseball has staged games in London and is eyeing Paris for 2025. Yankees caps are the top sellers across Europe.

Irish journalist Michael McQuaid said NFL merchandise dominates at American football meet-ups and watch parties he attends in Ireland. He estimated that college teams account for up to 10% of the jerseys and hats but "the vast majority of that is Notre Dame gear."

"Even for the layman... from talking to friends and family members, they've heard of Notre Dame," said McQuaid, who founded the Pro Football Ireland podcast.

Horvath said Notre Dame has been contacted about playing its next international game.

"It may be Ireland, it may be somewhere else," he said. "We're just excited to play this game here this year and then figure out what's next for Notre Dame football internationally."

It's not just football, either. The Notre Dame women's basketball team will open its season in Paris against South Carolina on Nov. 6 in what will be the first NCAA regular-season game in the French capital.

Notre Dame football hasn't set up country-specific social media accounts the way some NFL teams have, and they generally post only in English — Gaelic speakers noted a rare exception ahead of the season opener — though Horvath said that may change in the future.

This is the third game in Ireland between Notre Dame and Navy. The Irish beat the Midshipmen 52-27 in 1996 and 50-10 in 2012. Since then, the football program has taken other steps to broaden its international appeal. It brought in Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund for a preseason soccer game at Notre Dame Stadium in the summer of 2019. Liverpool's in-house media featured the university's campus in a segment posted on its website.

A year later, Notre Dame signed a long-term partnership with Irish brewer Guinness.

Besides expanding a fan base, the university hopes the outreach will entice people to visit South Bend or international students to come on an exchange program.

"We just hope Ireland opens people's eyes to Notre Dame and college football and college athletics a little bit," Horvath said. "We believe it does that."

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