The Notre Dame Fighting Irish were supposed to win the game against Navy, just like they had the previous 39 times before. But after D.J. Fitzpatrick kicked the game-winning 40-yard field goal, the celebration that ensued at Notre Dame Stadium was like no other in the recent history of this often lopsided matchup.
The emotion of the crowd in South Bend was more of an expression of relief than of triumphant victory. And plenty of sighs must have come out of the mouths of NBC executives, who perhaps have the greatest stake in a game like this, aside for Irish coach Tyrone Willingham.
Over the past 13 seasons, Notre Dame has remained independent -- thanks, in part, to being the only school that has its own television deal. NBC began its six-game-per-season plan in 1991 and the network has renewed the deal twice and will pay the Irish more than $1.5 million per game through the 2005 season.
And, despite the fact that 2003 will mark the 10th consecutive season that Notre Dame has not finished the season in the top 10, sources tell ESPN.com that the network is already in initial discussions on a third renewal of the unprecedented alliance.
"Notre Dame has a record of excellence and I have every belief that that can be sustained over the years," said NBC Sports president Ken Schanzer, who declined to discuss the status of current negotiations. "Notre Dame football continues to be a great asset to us. It is the kind of property that brings credibility and prestige to the network."
John Heisler, Notre Dame's sports information director, also declined to comment on talks, other than saying that the school's athletic director Kevin White is always working with NBC on a frequent basis.
Still, Notre Dame isn't the same value it was for NBC 10 years ago.
In mid-November 1993, No.1 Florida State and No. 2 Notre Dame faced off in South Bend, Ind., with 16-game winning streaks on the line and a chance at a national title at stake. More than 700 media members were credentialed for the showdown between Bobby Bowden's Seminoles and Lou Holtz's Fighting Irish, including ESPN's College GameDay crew, who made the game their first ever road stop.
The game lived up to its billing as Notre Dame pulled out a 31-24 victory, thwarting a Seminoles drive deep into Irish territory as time expired. And the game, televised on NBC, had a viewing audience reminiscent of a national championship game -- it was on in nearly 14.9 million households and was watched by more people than any college football matchup in the previous 12 years.
This year's showdown between the Seminoles and the Irish was the least competitive matchup in the six-year history of the schools playing each other. The then-fifth-ranked Florida State team pounded the Irish, 37-0. It was the first time the Irish were held scoreless on their home turf in more than 25 years. Only 2.17 million households had their set on this time to watch the game.
Since record and television ratings are almost directly correlated, it's no surprise that this year's ratings could be the worst NBC has ever endured since forming the alliance. Although two of the Irish's three wins have come against teams (Washington State and Pittsburgh) now ranked No. 8 and No. 16, respectively, three teams that were in the top 10 when they played the Irish (Michigan, USC and Florida State) outscored them 120-14.
"Notre Dame always plays a tough schedule," Schanzer said. "But this year is unique in that the schools that most expect to be good, turned out to be great."
Although ratings are currently slightly ahead of the ratings for both the 1999 and 2001 seasons, the Irish's final game on NBC is coming up this weekend against a 4-6 BYU team that is jeopardy of having back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in 32 years. Saturday's ratings against Navy won't be known until later this week.
The losses have definitely hurt the national appeal of the Irish. An average of almost 4.8 million households watched the Irish play each game from 1991-1995, the life of the first contract. But in the last five years, that average per-game viewership has dropped by nearly two million households.
Since 2000, the amount of people that call themselves Notre Dame fans in the United States has also dropped steadily each year, according to the latest ESPN Sports poll. In 2000, 7.1 percent of the U.S. population said they cheered for the Irish. That number, as of September, dropped to 6.3 percent, according to the poll. The New England area experienced the greatest decline in interest for the team over the four-year time period, as those that considered themselves fans dropped from 17.2 percent to 10.3 percent.
Games not covered under NBC's plan continue to be picked up by ABC, CBS or ESPN. The Irish hold the record for the most consecutive games on national television, which will stand at 136 games at season's end.
"It might one day be difficult to explain to our fans and alumni that a certain game wasn't picked up," Heisler said. "I'm not sure they would know what to do since they haven't heard that in so long."
Don Aspito, who received his MBA from Notre Dame in 1995, certainly wouldn't
know what to do.
Aspito organizes game get-togethers for the Notre Dame Club of Phoenix.
"We don't have as many recent graduates coming because their football experience hasn't been as good as ours was," Aspito said. "Some of them came to watch us play against Washington State and they left before the end of the game."
Notre Dame was trailing 19-6, but mounted a comeback and defeated the Cougars, 29-26, in overtime.
For NBC, buying into one program in this day and age certainly has its risks. The cutting of scholarships -- from 120 to 85 players -- has helped equal the playing field. So much so that the second and fifth most successful programs in college football history -- Notre Dame and Alabama - each have 14 losses over the past three seasons.
But Schanzer says he still considers Notre Dame to be an elite property.
"This is the one school that you make that deal with because of the reputation and history of their institution and of the football program and the kind of schedule they play," Schanzer said. "It's a schedule that Notre Dame made on its own before NBC came into the picture and it's a schedule that Notre Dame has made on its one since we've been associated with them."
While games with schools are loosely scheduled up to 10 years in advance, very few games penciled in more than five years down the road are under contract. Heisler said that officials within the athletics department plan to discuss sometime in the very near future the rigorous schedule the team puts itself through each year. Drastic changes are not expected, as traditional matchups would be hard to ditch. The Irish have only played Florida State six times, but they've played against Southern California for 76 consecutive years.
One reason NBC likely will stick with Notre Dame is because the programming is still relatively cheap compared to other major sports rights fees. Notre Dame programming costs the network slightly more than $9 million per year, compared to the ACC's football broadcast deal with ESPN/ABC, which allows for more games to be broadcast, involving a more diverse set of teams, but costs about $15 million more per year.
No one knows the skyrocketing rights fees in the major sports better than the NBC officials, who were willing to give up the NFL in 1998, Major League Baseball in 2000 and the NBA after the 2002 season. The network lost more than $300 million over the final two years of the deal. ESPN, CBS and Fox pay a combined average of $2.2 billion a year for the rights to show NFL games.
"NBC has withdrawn from so many major sports, but Notre Dame football will continue to provide them with a footprint in the college football world at a reasonable price," said Chuck Neinas, a former Big Eight Conference commissioner who now is president of Neinas Sports Services Inc., a sports consultancy firm.
NBC's apparent wooing of Notre Dame for a deal past the 2005 season might allow for the school to remain independent in the near future, even in the wake of conference restructuring and potential changes to the BCS.
But the latter could really hurt the Irish, who were granted an exemption when the coalition was formed in 1998. Many in the industry believe that the rule -- which states that Notre Dame qualifies for an at-large bid if it is ranked in the top 10 of the BCS standings or has at least nine wins -- will go away when things are reconstructed after the championship game in Jan. 2006.
That means it would be harder for Notre Dame to collect a healthy $14 million BCS bowl game check, which -- unlike the other conference members -- it doesn't have to split with anyone. Notre Dame has received one Bowl Championship Series invitation in six years, although the team has met the criteria three times.
Another important detail is that the money Notre Dame receives from the NBC deal isn't entirely earmarked for the athletic department's coffers. The athletic department keeps what school accountants determine is a per-game fee and the rest goes to support students in need of financial aid and into fellowship endowments, Heisler said.
Since 1991, more than 660 students have received scholarship dollars as a direct result of the NBC deal and Notre Dame's annual scholarship aid has increased from $5.4 million to $47.9 million throughout the life of the NBC deal.
"As much as there are ardent Notre Dame fans that insist that we preserve our independence at all costs, since it has been part of our image and character for decades and decades, anyone who understands the current landscape of college athletics knows that it would be hard to guarantee that this (independence) can go on forever," Heisler said. "But, as of now, nothing has changed."
While the value of NBC's deal might affect Notre Dame's decision -- even though no conferences have currently extended a public offer to the school -- Schanzer said NBC won't try to make choices for Notre Dame officials.
"We promised them when we first sat down in 1990, that we would stay out of their business," Schanzer said. "We wouldn't make decisions for them about scheduling or coaching or bowl games. If they want our advice, we will give it to them, but we would never impose ourselves on them in any kind of decision."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.