SVG College Sports Summit: In Keynote, Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick Says Content Is Finally Becoming King

Only about two years ago, the University of Notre Dame’s video-production offerings were in the self-described “Stone Ages.” Since then, having implemented a state-of-the-art on-campus broadcast facility called Fighting Irish Digital Media (FIDM), the university has become a leader in digital media.

Notre Dame’s Jack Swarbrick

Notre Dame’s Jack Swarbrick

“Our businesses tend to be evolutionary, rather than developed in the traditional way,” said Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, addressing a crowd of more than 500 college sports-video professionals on Wednesday at the fifth-annual SVG College Sports Summit, held this week in Atlanta. “At Notre Dame, if we’ve had an advantage, it’s that we were so far behind all of you two years ago. Those of you that have been to our [football] stadium know that we don’t have a videoboard to power. So we really did have the opportunity to draw, perhaps, on a cleaner slate than many of you do.”

Attendees were treated to an inside look at how Swarbrick and his team developed the concept for FIDM and how its early successes have stemmed, ironically, from a “spectacular failure” that came earlier in Swarbrick’s career.

In 2000, Swarbrick was CEO of a media company called Local Media Internet Venture (LMIV), which was designed to assist local radio and television companies facing the growing challenges and threats to their business that the Internet posed with the likes of AOL, Yahoo!, Napster, etc.

His recommendation was to pool the rights of all of those thousands radio stations and hundreds of television stations into a common network. In about 18 months, he had gone through all of the capital, and the company was dead.

Lessons for College Sports Video
So what does that mean to Fighting Irish Digital Media and the college–sports-video industry today? In his speech, Swarbrick outlined five lessons he learned from the failed media venture and how those lessons apply not only to FIDM but to how college sports-video content should be approached in the new digital age.

The chief of those lessons were related to content-related issues and the truth behind an age-old industry axiom.

“I’ve been in this business for about 33 years now, most of it surrounding media, and, for many of those years, I have heard that ‘content is king.’ Generally, for most of those 33 years, that’s been complete crap,” said Swarbrick. “Content is king if you’ve got distribution. Great content without distribution isn’t king of anything. But we are closer today to content being king, really, than at anytime in the three decades that people have been talking about it.”

He cited three critical factors to support that claim: the deregulation of distribution, the general acceptance of paying for online content, and independent promotional channels such as Twitter and Facebook that have allowed content creators to promote outside of just the resources of the distributor.

“Because of those three factors, content has a chance to be king because you can take content and, with those three things combined, you can find a place for it and you can achieve a level of penetration and acceptance that you never could have achieved before,” he said. “The lesson for me in that is that you have to listen to all three. Building great content without having a distribution plan, without knowing how you’re going to pay for it and what the revenue stream against it is and being able to back it with social promotion, no matter how good your content is, you’re not going to succeed.”

Use Content Effectively
Advances in broadcast and video technology have media professionals swimming in content. But even with proper distribution channels, Swarbrick said, it’s critical to use that content effectively, which he acknowledged he did not do well at LMIV: radio and television stations were reproducing their content for the Internet, when they should have been repurposing it for a new medium.

“At Notre Dame, we have to guard against that problem now,” he said. “We have a lot of content, but we shouldn’t make our programming decisions on what content is most readily available to be used. We ought to be using a different measure for what ought to be used.”

All in all, Swarbrick advised, content decisions have to directly relate back to the overall message of the university: “Is this the right thing to use? How does it relate to what we’re trying to do here? And, if you’ve got a lot of readily available content, there’s a danger that you may not do that.”

The Challenge of Rights
According to Swarbrick, one of the primary issues that will continue to challenge content creators — especially at the college level — is related to rights. Pointing again to his experiences with LMIV, he noted a critical moment in the company’s downfall: when the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that, when a local radio streamed its show online, it owed a second royalty to the artist. It was a tough financial and creative blow.

“Nothing will be more critical to our success [in college video] going forward than rights-related issues in content,” he said. “They won’t be the narrow one that we had in this circumstance, but they will exist nonetheless, because, as we grow these enterprises, you’re going to run into a host of different rights issues. We can only begin to see the start of it right now.

“Much of the value that you will produce in the future relates to historical content,” he continued. “You have rights implications related to your affiliations, with your broadcast partners — in our case, especially with our independent relationship with NBC — but [also] with your conferences. As we go from conferences’ selling a limited bundle of rights for a package of games to much broader rights transfers backed by conference networks, your rights issues become more sophisticated and challenging and have to be worked out.”

Swarbrick also referenced the impending O’Bannon v. NCAA lawsuit, which seeks royalty payments for college athletes and could have a huge impact on colleges not only financially but in how gaming and video content is created. “If part of your unique programming is the post-game locker-room [interview] and the student-athlete would rather share his or her postgame views through a mechanism that they control, that’s going to present rights issues for you.”

Want to know the other lessons Swarbrick learned from LMIV and how they apply to the future of college sports video? SVG will make available the full video of Swarbrick’s keynote address next week. Visit for continuing coverage of the SVG College Sports Video Summit.

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