Q&A: Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick talks the Notre Dame Stadium experience and Peacock
Editor's Note: This is Part I of Notre Dame football insider Eric Hansen's recent two-part Q-and-A session with Notre Dame vice president and athletic director Jack Swarbrick. The focus in Part I is the Notre Dame fan experience. Part II covers a broad variety of topics, including realignment and ND's independence, the fate of the 12-team playoff proposal, NIL concerns, and Brian Kelly's coaching milestone involving Knute Rockne.
SOUTH BEND — Jack Swarbrick knows the evolving fan experience at Notre Dame created some culture shock, as did the new viewing experience — Peacock streaming — for the Sept. 11 home opener with Toledo.
The headaches and heartache, though, are expected to decrease, while the number of fans in the stands is expected to increase. In fact, the biggest complaint for Saturday's home game with Purdue — literally — might have had to do with a giant drum.
Here then are Swarbrick's thoughts on the Notre Dame football experience from the Toledo game and beyond.
Q: What kind of feedback did you get from fans regarding the home opener, and what needs to change?
JS: "I heard from fans about three things primarily, as you’d expect. The first had to do with mobile ticketing, mobile parking passes and stadium entry. I was very pleased with our ability to communicate what we were doing in advance and the remarkable extent to which our fans downloaded those things before they got to the game, which really helped us.
"It wasn’t perfect certainly, but compared to most of our peers around the country, our first game with mobile ticketing went really well. It will continue to be an issue throughout the year. We know that, because our fans turn over each game so much.
"We certainly heard from those who had issues. Some people don’t have smart phones. Some people were focused on not having a commemorative ticket. Those are things that we’ll continue to work on. So we heard from them, but — by and large — I was pleased.
"Secondly, we heard about the attendance. And we knew where we were going to be, because we had seen the advanced sales, right? So it wasn’t a surprise to us, but it was a surprise in the sense that in a normal year, we can count on our first two games being big sellers because of the weather.
"So what I think we saw by and large was the impact of COVID. We have a much higher percentage of our crowd that travels in for our games than most other people. And I just think there’s a COVID travel reluctance that’s still out there. And I think we saw it.
"I know people speculate about the impact of pricing on the crowd. The facts just don’t support that. This was our lowest-priced game of the year. We have higher-priced games that sold very well. Secondly, our highest-priced tickets at that game sold. So that’s not it.
"But finally I note, the ticket prices on the secondary market were very low, regardless of what our published price was — and that didn’t solve the problem. We want our experience to be affordable for our fans, but this really isn’t a situation where I can look at it and say, ‘Gee, if we had lowered the average ticket price by $20, we would have gotten a different result.' I’m certain we wouldn’t have.
"And then, of course, finally I heard from our fans about Peacock. I could not have been more pleased or more excited about what it represents. And so I understood from the outset that it wouldn’t be universally embraced by our fan base, but quite frankly, compared to the reaction I got when we went from grass to turf or went to piped-in music or altered our helmets, it wasn’t as bad.
"There were people who didn’t like that we did it, but it wasn’t of some unusual magnitude and I’m just thrilled with the outcome, given the objectives that we had for that."
Q: Why was it important to do this Peacock experiment and what might it lead to?
JS: "Well it’s less about what it might lead to for us than where the industry is going. It is moving to streaming. In some number of years — and we can disagree about how many years that is — NBC will be Peacock and ESPN will be Disney+.
"We can all see this in our own lives. The percentage of programming that we consume on a streaming basis versus a traditional broadcast basis is growing. So we know it’s going there. The question is how to we position Notre Dame to take advantage of it and be a leader.
"We have always been a leader in media — the first national broadcast network that was truly national, the Sunday morning games with Lindsey Nelson, the original NBC agreement. This is what we’ve always done. It’s my job to make sure that we continue to do it, to be in the forefront of the movement in media.
"We have to be prepared for that. We wanted to be first. We wanted to show that Notre Dame could lead and lead effectively. And we did. We had great results in terms of participation. Long term, the two things that most excite me about this are 1) Our ability to do additional programming.
"You cannot have watched the pregame programming and the postgame programming and not have embraced what we were able to do. The interview with Kyle Hamilton. The interview with Jack Coan. The time Jac (Collinsworth) and Corey (Robinson) got to spend talking about the game. That’s all content you can’t do on a linear broadcast.
"Also, having Brian Kelly’s postgame press conference, the interview with Myron (Tagovailoa-Amosa) on the field. It’s all stuff that streaming let us do. So the ability to tell the Notre Dame story, because streaming windows are unlimited, is really exciting for us.
"Next, streaming lets us know who’s watching the game. You can’t get that information on a linear broadcast. And if we know who’s watching the game, we can communicate with them more effectively. We can allow them to be in a position to shape our broadcast, tell us what they’re looking for. You can only get that information when you’re streaming.
"So for all those reasons, we were really excited to do it. And while it wasn’t perfect — we had glitches — as far as live sports programming on streaming goes, it was a home run."
Q: Are you able to share how many viewers were able to take in the broadcast?
JS: We don’t have that data yet, but that information will probably have to come from NBC when it is available.
Q: Following up on the digital ticketing, what’s going to happen to people who don’t have smart phones or aren’t adept at using their smartphone?
JS: "The most interesting thing about the experience of the first week was we set up all these ticket reconciliation booths to help in those situations. So if you don’t have a smartphone, come to the booth, we’ll get you a hard ticket.
"We really staffed that, I think, very effectively. They weren’t very busy. I know some people were vocal about it, but our issue was more at the entry point, just the extra time of scanning and going through the magnetometer. There were a few gates I wish it had been a bit smoother, but it wasn’t because people got up to the gate and couldn’t figure it out.
"That process worked really well. And as I say, I was shocked by the limited number of customers our reconciliation booths were working with."
Q: Anecdotally, it seemed that a lot of stadiums around the country had empty seats — even a high-profile game like Oregon at Ohio State. Do you think it’s something that might happen throughout the season because of hesitancy by some fans in being in big crowds?
JS: "You’re certainly correct about the national trend, and I think it started before the pandemic. I think there’s a softening of the ticket market generally, especially with the emergence of the secondary ticket market. It’s now the primary ticket market for a lot of people.
"That really impacts people’s desire to buy season tickets, for example, because there isn’t a college game you can’t buy a ticket to on the secondary market. So all of that existed before the pandemic, and we could see those trends. Our long-time sellout streak had already ended. The pandemic certainly accelerated it.
"I was very surprised that our game at Florida State didn’t sell out. That was a high-profile, marquee game. I was shocked that Oregon at Ohio State wasn’t a sellout. I watched some of the Tennessee game. Boy, it was pretty sparse. So across the board you’re seeing it.
"I would just caution people: Be very careful about how you interpret reported numbers about how many attended a college football game, because a lot of schools report tickets sold. And they have huge season ticket bases, that we don’t have, and a lot of those people weren’t at the game. "
Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI