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Observer Exclusive: Swarbrick discusses the future of Notre Dame athletics

Douglas Farmer | Friday, May 20, 2011

Wikipedia refers to him as America’s first sports agent. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame and a law degree from Stanford University, and once upon a time, Jack Swarbrick convinced the NCAA to up and move its headquarters to the middle of Indiana.

But these days, Swarbrick, the director of Notre Dame Athletics, is known as the unifying force behind two national titles and two more Final Four appearances in one year.

“The one thing I have worked hard to do, and I think our coaches and athletes have really embraced it, is to articulate that the national championship is the goal annually,” Swarbrick said in a recent sitdown with The Observer. “That’s what we’re trying to do, and to really focus on that as the objective for the sports.”

While Notre Dame rarely sees true droughts in the realm of athletic success, this past year brought quite a harvest among Swarbrick’s fields: a women’s soccer national championship — ­­the first title of Swarbrick’s career — a fencing national championship, a women’s basketball runner-up finish and an appearance in the Frozen Four from the hockey team.

“We had 16 of our teams get into the tournament, and you can’t win if you don’t get into the tournament,” said the Yonkers, New York, native. “That’s the start, really having a consistently large base of teams and individual athletes who make it into the NCAA tournament.”

But with that success comes a challenge for the leader of all things Notre Dame sports: attendance across all sports programs.

“The good news is we have lots of success,” Swarbrick said. “The challenge with that is we have a lot of great programs that have a lot of contests that we have to market and get more people to come to.”

A Notre Dame Network?

In theory, a broadcast network consisting solely of Notre Dame athletics could increase the marketing platform, boosting the attendance figures. The University of Texas has already utilized this tactic to the tune of $300 million in a deal with ESPN to form the Longhorn Network.

Yet, the former Indianapolis lawyer foresees Notre Dame going a different direction.

“We are very focused on building our digital media capacity,” Swarbrick said. “It’ll probably take a slightly different form because we work with a different set of assets than Texas.

“[Texas’s plan] is based on the remarkable passion for that school in a geographic area, so it fits over a cable footprint. I have interest everywhere, but not a concentration of it in one place.”

Thus, while Swarbrick has plans for a potential Notre Dame-only network, he must first wait on the development of certain pieces of technology.

“Our opportunities will really come as broadband delivery increases and as [younger demographics] are consuming media on a more content-by-content basis rather than a network basis,” he said. “So as those two things evolve, that’s really going to play to Notre Dame’s favor.”

In the meantime, Swarbrick said the creation of stations like Texas’s, the Big Ten Network or the incipient Pac-12 Network led to stabilizing the college football landscape.

“When you get conferences whose members are also equity partners in a media company, it changes the dynamic completely,” he said. “So you get those two cornerstones of the industry (the Big Ten and the Pac 12) who are going to be very set … They will be very stable. With two large conferences reflecting that level of stability, I don’t think there’s enough of a dynamic to cause major change.”

Football schedules get tough

As a result of his confidence in conference stability, Swarbrick sees a stiff challenge for Irish coach Brian Kelly and Notre Dame football.

“It’s really incumbent on Notre Dame to be able to make the case at the end of the year that it’s played the toughest schedule in the country,” he said. “There will be a strong presumption in favor of the [Bowl Championship Series conference champions.]

“If we want to be there, we better be able to make that argument that no one in the country played a tougher schedule, and so that’s how we’re going to build them.”

For example, the 2012 schedule includes a game against Navy in Dublin, Ireland, as well as match-ups with Miami, USC, Stanford, Michigan, Michigan State, Pittsburgh,BYU and Oklahoma.

“Who formed that schedule?” Swarbrick joked. “Who did that? You know, that year is especially challenging, but it’ll be representative of the future.”

Swarbrick hopes to unveil that future soon.

“I hope to have the schedule out through 2017 before we start the fall season,” he said. “There may be a piece or two missing, but we’re pretty close.”

He expects that future to reflect the recent past, though he noted he may not ever see a year like this one again.

“Every year is its own story,” Swarbrick said. “[I feel like] a proud parent.”

Sports Editor Allan Joseph contributed to this report.