Sellout streak ends at Notre Dame Stadium

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Jack Swarbrick can live with some bald spots on Notre Dame Stadium home football Saturdays as long as the golf clap never returns as the signature response to what’s going on down on the field.

Even if the vacant seats represent a piece of history absconding.

And that’s exactly what is happening Saturday, when Notre Dame (7-2) and Navy (7-1) clash for the 93rd consecutive season — the Notre Dame home sellout streak will end at 273 games.

It’s the second-longest in NCAA history, with Nebraska’s run of 373 No. 1 and still active heading into Saturday’s matchup with Wisconsin.

“It was never sort of important to me to keep it alive, but I understand why other people thought so,” said Swarbrick, ND’s athletic director since 2008. “It’s a point of distinction to a lot of people and our fans.

“For me it’s always been: What’s the stadium environment like? Are we creating a great environment for our team and for our student-athletes? That you can say it’s also sold out is sort of a byproduct of that.

“But if my choice is (77,622) people in an environment that’s not really good versus 75,000 in a raucous environment, I’ll take the latter every time.”

That Notre Dame has the fourth-longest active home winning streak in college football at 16 games — behind only Clemson (21), UCF (20) and Ohio State (19) — is at least a partial reflection of how far the Irish have come in changing the gameday vibe, even at the expense of rankling some traditionalists.

So if the product on the field is appealing and the acoustics, videoboard and wider concession choices enhance that, why for the first time since Thanksgiving Day 1973 will a Notre Dame home game go down as something less than a capacity crowd?

The answer is layered, with the most compelling of those being that Notre Dame let it happen.

Swarbrick acknowledged the streak could have snapped at several different points over the past few years, and that the university got creative in extending it.

By creative, there were some deep, 11th-hour discounts.

“Group sales were a big part of keeping the streak going, too,” he said. “We’d go to somebody who was ‘a friend of Notre Dame’ and say, ‘Gee, can you help us with this game? Can you buy 50 tickets and distribute them to your employees?’ That would be an example.”

That typically happened in November. But this November there was a glut of home games — three to be exact, with no marquee names (Virginia Tech, Navy, Boston College).

It’s only the fourth time since the stadium expanded from its old 59,075 capacity in 1997 that there have been as many as three November home games in a season. In five of the past 10 seasons, there has been just one November home game, including last season.

“When we’d have one game, we could clearly focus on it,” Swarbrick said. “This is a circumstance, where you’ve got games in consecutive weeks in mid to late November, and so you don’t have some of the same strategies available to you.

“And because of the number of our fans that travel (a great) distance to the stadium, is just a challenge for us. It’s endemic to that schedule. And we knew it a year and a half ago, as we were looking forward, that you know what, that might be the time where the streak ends.”

The knee-jerk explanation is that Notre Dame simply has priced itself out of comfortably selling out anymore.

And Swarbrick acknowledged he received plenty of pushback when Notre Dame when to a tiered pricing structure in recent years, changing from a standardized ticket price for all games and all seats to charging more for the big games and the best seats and less for ho-hum opponents and seats with bad angles.

“It was basically an equity argument. The person who sat high in the end zone and the person who sat on the 50-yard line shouldn’t pay the same amount,” Swarbrick said. “We wanted to discount and create a lower price for corner seats and upper seats, and adjust the premium seats in the other direction.

"I was proud of the fact that we did not increase the revenue out of the bowl when we did that. We were very careful to sort of back into the numbers by saying, ‘OK, how much revenue did we produce last year out of the bowl from ticket sales and what are we going to do this year?'

"And so it was important to me that people not say, 'Hey, you raised the prices to gouge me.’”

Chris Manuel is a 38-year-old professional and 2002 Notre Dame graduate living in Austin, Texas. Because he is a Sorin Society member, getting access to tickets at face value isn’t challenging.

And while the increased price in premium tickets didn’t sway him from buying tickets, it did “annoy him.”

“In the past three to four years, I find myself going to away games more than home games,” Manuel said. “Part of it’s the ease of travel. Getting to Atlanta for the Georgia game. Seeing different environments. The hassle of getting into Chicago and then from there to South Bend on game day are all factors.”

But the biggest factor is the weather. Manuel, a Texas native, simply won’t attend a Notre Dame home game past the middle of October. Or at least not yet.

“And I think I’m a lot like other people that way,” he said.

Where he’s different is that he doesn’t buy tickets from the secondary market. And the propensity for fans to do that these days is the big hidden factor in the streak subsiding.

“People know they can buy a ticket to a sporting event at any time,” Swarbrick said. “And people under 30, they tend not to come to the event site for tickets. They go right to Vivid Seats or StubHub or TicketMaster.

“We’re always going to have extraordinary demand for the best games, but in the fluid market like this, people are less likely to make a commitment to buy tickets to a game that doesn’t feel premium or is at a bad time of year. They’ll wait.”

Back in 1973 there was no StubHub or internet, though there were ticket brokers/scalpers. That didn’t matter. During a national championship season for Notre Dame, ABC-TV elected to move ND’s final home game of the season from Saturday Nov. 24 to Thanksgiving Day, packaging ND-Air Force as part of a doubleheader with LSU-Alabama.

Roger Valdiserri, a former longtime sports information director and ND administrator, insists every ticket was sold for that game, but capacity at the time was determined by turnstile counts, not tickets sold — as it is now. And the 57,236 who did show left the stadium 1,839 short of capacity.

The Notre Dame students en masse elected to go home for Thanksgiving instead of sticking around for the game. One of those students was a junior named Jack Swarbrick.

“I don’t have a memory of that game not selling out, or watching it on TV with my parents in Bloomington, Ind.,” he said. “I’m sure if it was on, we would have built it into the Thanksgiving schedule. It just didn’t make an impression on me then.”

It does now, and so will Saturday, because the challenges of selling out on a regular basis aren’t going away.

“You can say limit the home games in November, but then is that fair to your football team to make them travel so much at the end of a season?” Swarbrick said. “You’re balancing the competitive desire to put yourself in a position with the (College Football Playoff) versus the challenges of selling games.

“It’s great next year that Clemson will be here later in the year (Nov. 7). We’re not going to have any trouble with that ticket. But when it’s not a Clemson game. there’s just a unique dynamic here where our people come from.

“So late-season games, where weather has the potential to be a major issue, become more of a challenge for us than a place where your fan base is essentially local.

“That’s our reality.”

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A Notre Dame fan cheers during the USC game on Oct. 12 at Notre Dame Stadium.
Fans wave cell phone flashlights during the Notre Dame-USC game, Oct. 12 at Notre Dame Stadium.