SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Andy Sorrells can see the University of Georgia campus from his office window in downtown Athens. A 15-minute walk will put him at Sanford Stadium, where he spent fall Saturdays as a kid from Gwinnett County, then as a Georgia student and now as a season ticket holder. Attendance is both tradition and reflex for Sorrells, who estimates he’s been to nearly 300 consecutive Georgia football games.
“Been going home and away for a long, long time,” Sorrells said. “And when Notre Dame popped up on the schedule, we were excited. We’ll put it that way. I would have paid whatever it took as long as I could have made it happen to go to that game.
“Going to Notre Dame could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
For Notre Dame, that sentiment represents a problem the athletic department has spent the past year trying to solve in advance of Ohio State’s visit to South Bend this Saturday.
There were thousands of stories in 2017 of Georgia fans like Sorrells, hell-bent on witnessing the Bulldogs’ first visit to college football’s preeminent cathedral. They staged a massive tailgate across from the Burke Golf Course at the southwest corner of campus. They invaded the campus itself, some with tickets, some without. A ticket scam in Georgia landed one broker a jail sentence after he overpromised inventory. Prices spiked beyond $1,000.
And for every Georgia fan willing to buy, there had to be a Notre Dame fan willing to sell. The visiting allotment for road teams usually hovers around 5,000 tickets, which is the figure Ohio State got for Saturday’s game, per the terms of the game contract. The number of Georgia fans inside Notre Dame Stadium that night six years ago appeared to quintuple that figure, at minimum.
The game was a classic, with Georgia escaping with a 20-19 win when Notre Dame’s last-gasp drive ended with a strip sack. Beyond the loss, the optics for the Irish were a disaster, as a lucrative red wave took over the stadium, bringing back memories of Nebraska’s visit to Notre Dame Stadium 17 years earlier. Georgia fans serenaded the Dawgs with “Hail to Georgia” at the start of the fourth quarter, phone flashlights in hand.
Sorrells bought four tickets in two transactions to get in, each representing a different problem for Notre Dame. He initially bought two tickets from a Notre Dame season ticket holder by searching message boards: a pair for him and his wife in Section 121, Row 5 for $500 each, tickets with a face value of $95. For two friends, Sorrells couldn’t believe his luck when he heard Notre Dame released additional tickets to the game the night before. He bought two more at face value straight from Notre Dame’s ticketing office for $175 each, picked them up at will call and handed them over to other Georgia fans.
“It was crazy to me that Notre Dame allowed that to happen,” Sorrells said. “I don’t remember the section for those, but luckily for us everywhere turned into a Georgia section.
“I’ve been to a lot of cool places. Notre Dame by far was my favorite trip I’ve had. Winning the national championship was awesome, but Notre Dame because of the venue was so historical.”
So how does Notre Dame stop one of its greatest assets from becoming a game day liability? That’s a question athletic director Jack Swarbrick has been asking before Ohio State visits. The weekend will include ESPN’s “College GameDay ” and command a national spotlight. It could be the biggest moment for a full Notre Dame Stadium since the Bush Push. How much red seeps into the stands will color the moment, down to how many stories like Sorrells’ are retold.
From ticketing technology to jersey colors to marketing strategy, Notre Dame believes it’s put in the right work to get the look it wants.
On Saturday night, everyone will see.
If the answer is money, Notre Dame wanted to change the question.
As Swarbrick pressed his ticket department for solutions to the problem of opposing fans invading Notre Dame Stadium, usually wearing red, it became clear what was under their control and what was not. It also became clear that if Notre Dame wanted to stop fans from selling tickets for marquee home games, the ticketing department needed to make that decision about more than economics.
“We are just unique in a number of ways,” Swarbrick said. “The first way we’re unique is we simply have more people prepared to sell their ticket than a lot of other places do. And we know who’s selling them. It’s not a mystery. That underlying issue is hard to attack. The other is, and I’m hoping it’s a little less true for our friends from Columbus, but it’s such a bucket list trip for the visiting team.”
On the second point, Swarbrick might be right. Georgia’s trip to Notre Dame Stadium was a first. Cincinnati fans, a less invasive species two years ago, made their first trip to Notre Dame since 1900 during a College Football Playoff season. Nebraska’s visit was its first since 1947. Ohio State last played in South Bend in 1996. The teams have twice met in bowls since. They opened last season in Columbus.
But that’s a solution of convenience, not strategy.
So Notre Dame leaned on Patrick Nowlin, senior associate athletics director for business innovation and revenue generation — a long title for a job that includes ticketing strategy. He works under Yulander Wells, deputy athletics director in charge of business strategy. When Swarbrick talked about “making life miserable” for his business team to solve the red problem, Nowlin and Wells got the message. Wells came to Notre Dame last November. Nowlin joined the department in February 2022.
Neither was here for the Georgia game.
“Oh, but I know about it,” Nowlin said. “I’ve heard about it and understand where we were and why we’re doing the things we will be doing. We’ve changed processes. And our approach is a lot more strategic in how we’re going about it.
“But there’s no magic bullet.”
One fix is as straightforward as making sure any returned tickets before the game don’t go up for public sale. Nowlin said any last-minute returned seats will go to Notre Dame season ticket holders or other fans connected to the school. He doesn’t expect any on Saturday, regardless.
The tougher nut to crack was getting into the heads of fans, understanding why they bought and when, and then figuring out how they sold and why. The first solution was moving up the date of purchase for season tickets. A call that went out in the summer for renewal should go out during the prior season, Wells said, giving fans a longer window to purchase and pay for tickets. In theory, that gives fans a chance to think more about season tickets, and season tickets are less likely to sell their seats to opposing fans.
Notre Dame’s season ticket base is 45 percent of the stadium, including students. At other top programs, that figure is closer to 85 percent — including Oklahoma, where Nowlin worked before coming to Notre Dame.
Notre Dame can’t close that gap entirely. Season ticket holders are an average of 500 miles from campus, about four times the distance from many major programs.
“The reason why we have such a large, single-game ticket buying crowd is because people are coming from so far away,” Wells said. “So lengthen the time that people can buy, encouraging that. And then, quite frankly, we just got to do a better job of making sure people understand the value of having a season ticket and not a single-game ticket.”
That’s where Notre Dame wants to turn the economic argument of ticketing into an experiential one. The get-in price for season tickets is $850. It was the only guaranteed way to purchase tickets to the Ohio State game. Single-game tickets never went to public sale, which meant Notre Dame had more control over who bought them. The maximum number of tickets donors could purchase was also reduced to 10, roughly cut in half from previous limits.
A chance at Ohio State tickets from the school lottery required a minimum $100 donation to enter, but it never dropped that low relative to buyers. In other words, higher-level donors had better access, which is how Nowlin executed tickets for the Red River Rivalry with Texas in Dallas. The same principle applied to the Cocktail Party in Jacksonville between Georgia and Florida, where Wells worked from 2008-13. And if this game did go to public sale, Notre Dame was prepared to put it in its own pricing tier, above games like USC, Clemson or Michigan.
“We know more about our fans now and we’ve also protected it by making sure that the only way to buy it is you had to have a pre-existing relationship with Notre Dame,” Nowlin said. “You couldn’t just come in off the street and buy it.”
Then there’s the matter of the Ohio State fans buying from the school’s 5,000-ticket allotment. Instead of creating a block of Buckeyes fans in one section beneath the video board, Notre Dame has spread them around the stadium in the top rows of multiple sections. The point isn’t to give visiting fans the worst seats. It’s more to break up red blocks in the stadium.
Still, for all the barriers and safeguards Notre Dame can put in place to protect inventory, once the tickets are sold, there’s little the school can do to stop resale. If the economics of selling an Ohio State ticket to offset the other five home games make financial sense, a university with one of the nation’s top business schools is stuck.
That’s where Notre Dame wants to turn an economic question into an experiential one.
Marcus Freeman arrived for his Monday news conference of Ohio State week in a green bomber jacket from ESQ clothing in Chicago. He did Notre Dame’s in-house “Wake Up the Echoes” podcast that afternoon in a green Notre Dame hoodie with “All Fight” scripted on the front. These sartorial choices were not left to chance.
“They talked me into wearing a green jacket today,” Freeman said. “And so I said I’ll wear It. We expect to see a lot of green in that stadium.”
The color scheme inside Notre Dame Stadium will be the story before and potentially after the game. Freeman said he’ll notice the breakdown of fans before kickoff, who’s wearing what and in what volume. That imagery fades after the first snap, but Notre Dame wants to win the margins of Saturday night and the actual game. It asked the head coach to help with that, an attempt to bind the fan base to the team, with green jerseys matching this season’s version of “The Shirt.”
— The Fighting Irish (@FightingIrish) July 31, 2023
Notre Dame will put LED wristbands on every seat, part of a digital light show with each wristband coordinated by location in the stadium. Notre Dame already added light shows to night games. It first experienced that impact in the return game at Georgia three years ago. This is all a long way from flyovers, “Crazy Train” and honoring professors on the video board.
“Part of it is FOMO,” Wells said. “But the other part of it is people having ownership. That’s what we’ve got to really dig deep into people’s psyche, this is your place too, take ownership of it. And don’t let anybody else come in here. Let’s make sure this place, home field advantage for our team, not anyone else.”
If the idea that color combinations could help Notre Dame beat Ohio State feels like a reach, consider the Irish lost all three red invasion games by a total of 15 points. Compare that to traditional fan turnouts where the visiting allotment comprised the near total of opposing fans. Notre Dame beat Clemson twice at home, beat USC five consecutive times here and beat Michigan here three times in a row.
Notre Dame has tried to build football weekends around the football game itself, whether that’s promoting other sports — men’s soccer and volleyball both play Friday night — or the campus traditions like the midnight drummer’s circle and the afternoon trumpets at the Dome. Notre Dame started hosting ticketed Friday night tailgates in the stadium, too.
And then much of it is scheduling, with a home slate including Ohio State and USC an easier sell than next season’s home games that don’t get much better than Florida State, Stanford and Virginia. Notre Dame being ranked in the top 10 with a head coach embraced by the fan base helps, too.
“How do you get people to understand it’s more than just the game?” Nowlin said. “That’s something that we’re working on every day.”
No one expects to keep the red entirely out of Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday night. That’s different from accepting a takeover as inevitable. Notre Dame won’t deny season tickets to those who sell them, a non-starter for Swarbrick. It won’t force fans to wear certain colors and avoid others. All Notre Dame can do is get tickets to Notre Dame fans, then offer a product compelling enough that the value of that ticket in hand rises beyond what an Ohio State fan is willing to pay.
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Nowlin and Wells will find out if these strategies will pay off in real time on Saturday night with an entire sport’s view trained on Notre Dame Stadium. There’s reason to believe it will work. On his computer, Nowlin has a dashboard with every seat in the stadium, color-coded as the tickets are bought, sold and resold. Blue represents a transfer. Pink represents the secondary market. The chart should let Nowlin anticipate problems before they play out on national television.
“The secondary market where we’ve seen the most turnover is an Ohio State section,” Nowlin said. “That’s a positive for us and what we’re looking for. We’ve done everything we can to prevent it from being in that (Georgia) area. Our technology is there, our strategy is there.
“It’s gonna come down to making sure that our fans hang onto their tickets and come and support the team.”
(Top photo: Jeff Haynes / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)