“This is how we’ve always done it” is a common barrier to change, especially for athletic departments whose culture and identity are deeply rooted in tradition. It is important to preserve your institution’s history, as it is intricately connected to your school’s legacy. It is equally important, however, to integrate a modern data-driven athletics culture to drive ticket sales, generate incremental revenue, and leverage fundraising efforts that lead to a stronger, more diverse fan base.  

Affinaquest EVP of Collegiate Athletics Steve Hank recently spoke with Patrick Nowlin, Senior Associate AD at Notre Dame Athletics, about the transformative power of utilizing data solutions to solve business problems, understand buyers and donors, and generate high ROI marketing campaigns. For departments to remain competitive and financially secure in the rapidly evolving landscape of collegiate athletics, data-driven decisions are critical. 

Through that inspiring conversation, we discovered Six Key Takeaways from The Fighting Irish about how to increase sales and fans and enhance a thriving athletics program. Read on to learn about those six takeaways and how you can incorporate them into your own athletics department.

1. History and tradition are an essential part of the collegiate athletics experience.

Long-standing traditions build connection and engagement with alumni and fans. It can be the main reason a student or athlete chooses your university or why fans continue to renew their season tickets.

Hank notes, “Notre Dame’s greatest asset is its history and tradition. But if you asked people across collegiate athletics, they’d say that one of the biggest things that challenges Notre Dame, is [also] its history and tradition.”

So how do we know which parts to preserve and which to evolve? 
“We can’t do things the way we did them even 10 years ago. We can’t just roll out renewals or just have people come back. We have to be innovative in how we reach our fans. We’ve got to have a sustainable model that is also agile,” says Nowlin.

As an example, many schools saw an increase in demand for premium seating over the last few years. Fans valued more space after COVID-19. The athletics teams found this information in their ticket sales data, which could have easily been overlooked. The takeaway? Identify new trends through data and let them guide your growth.

2. New traditions have to start somewhere.

With significant staff turnover, NIL, conference realignment, and the changing multimedia landscape, it’s safe to say things are changing for collegiate athletics. Although this certainly puts a strain on tradition, it also opens the door to building new traditions and utilizing modern engagement methods. Departments have more data on their fans than ever before, and it should be strategically used to cultivate stronger relationships.  
As Nowlin notes, “It takes baby steps. If someone says ‘This is how we do it here,’ we no longer accept that statement.”

He explains the importance of showing them the numbers, implementing a strategy, and presenting the success. “We’re challenged to not just say ‘We’re Notre Dame.’ We’ve got to be better and show the changes,” says Nowlin.

3. Data is critical asset to building engagement.

Every ticket, hot dog, and sweatshirt sale is an opportunity. However, these fans slip away as quickly as they come, which is why you need to have the tools in place to capture every potential lead. Not only does organized data show you your fans, it also tells a bigger story, generating surveys, and improving the overall fan experience.  

“We discovered the uniqueness and the buying patterns of our fan base. I get a whole new group of fans every single game,” says Nowlin. By utilizing your data, you can better engage fans, retain them over a longer period of time, and increase revenue for the department.

4. Start with “bite-sized” shifts in culture and tradition.

Internal culture is not always focused on the fan experience. You may have people in your department who are unaware that your fan demographics or buying patterns have changed. Small shifts in practice may help departments be more responsive to fans and improve engagement, even when rooted in history and tradition. 
This is why Nowlin suggests starting by asking the question, “What is the biggest business problem we are trying to solve?”

You can then work backwards, teasing out all of the factors related to the identified problem. Your department needs to see how the data can help solve their problems, which is precisely how you will shift toward a data-driven athletics culture.
“It starts in a small group… look for the wins and let it expand. Show them a bite-sized portion and get everyone going in the same direction,” says Nowlin.

5. Make decisions based upon what you know, not what you think.

Tradition has the unintended effect of making people assume that the established way is the best, or only, way to do things. Often when the facts and data are unearthed, they tell a different story. 
“We’ve transitioned from making decisions on what we thought we knew, to what the data is actually showing us. We’re taking ownership of our data and finding what is actionable about it,” says Nowlin.   
Notre Dame was surprised to find out that Texas was their third highest region of ticket buyers, not some of the states closer to Indiana. “I would have never expected this. This {information} changed our marketing approach. The data shows us where to invest and where to pull back.”

6. Having the right tools is essential for a data-driven athletics culture.

Affinaquest’s solutions identify opportunities and track outcomes, both of which are critical for utilizing and proving the value of data and data-informed initiatives. Nowlin comments that his first daily task is to check his dashboard for new stats. “You don’t need to be running reports all the time. Information that used to take me 2-3 hours to pull. I get it now instantly.”  
This data makes it much easier to solve the stated business problems. “Now I can see sports performance, student performance, sales trends, how practices have looked… [I see] the immediate value and am able to solve problems,” says Nowlin. Using the right tools will help your department make change where change is necessary.


The Fighting Irish are intricately tied to their traditions and history, yet are also able to use data to grow in new directions. To learn from their success, first with the problem you want to solve, use the data to get the full picture, and present the benefits to your department. As Nowlin accurately pinpoints, “Without the data, it’s hard to tell the story. Now we’re able to say, ‘This is the problem, this is what our fans are telling us, and these are the changes that need to be made.’”  

To get more details on their strategy and how data has transformed Notre Dame Athletics, watch the full webinar now 

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