Photo by Barbara Johnston
When the University announced in 2018 that Garth Brooks would be the first musician to play a concert in Notre Dame Stadium in many years, it showed that the University was not messing around with its new embrace of nonfootball events there. Some 84,000 people attended the rainy, frigid October 20 music celebration that was broadcast on CBS the following December to an audience of 8.9 million viewers.
That January the stadium hosted the NHL Winter Classic between the Boston Bruins and the Chicago Blackhawks. More than 76,000 hockey fans attended the game, the second largest crowd to watch the outdoor contest since the series began in 2008.
“We were a destination, maybe for the first and only time in the history of this community, on New Year’s Day,” says Rob DeCleene, executive director of Visit South Bend Mishawaka.
A few days later my wife and I attended the cheaper “Let’s take this outside” game between Notre Dame’s and Michigan’s hockey teams. With 23,000 fans bundled against the cold, more people watched that game live in the stadium than can watch any NHL game in an arena.
Now, how many people saw the puck is less clear.
Although outdoor hockey is a spectacle, stadiums really are better suited for sports where you can see the ball from a distance. So in the eyes of this beholder, the July 2019 soccer match between two of the world’s best teams, Liverpool F.C. and Borussia Dortmund, was the event of the year.
It is not normal for a city like South Bend, population 101,860, to attract events of this magnitude. Liverpool played other elite European clubs at Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium, and Dortmund had another match at CenturyLink Field, home of the Seattle Seahawks. “It’s pretty remarkable,” says DeCleene. “To have South Bend in that mix is a pretty great feather in our cap.”
The teams were in town for a few days and hosted open practice sessions at Alumni Stadium — my chance, I thought, to meet my heroes from the Liverpool team I have followed since I was growing up in Denmark. But I was wrong. Alumni Stadium, which seats 3,000, was full of fans who had to be reminded to stay quiet so that players and coaches could communicate.
It was still something to see. So was Notre Dame’s practice facility, according to Liverpool coach Jürgen Klopp. “Notre Dame is, wow,” he said at the time. “No club in the world has facilities like the University of Notre Dame. It’s just not possible.”
When the July 19 game began, 40,000 fans were there, joining in on the famous “You’ll never walk alone” chant that supporters of both teams sing as an anthem before matches. It was like singing the Alma Mater, only for my team from thousands of miles away that had suddenly come to South Bend of all places.
And then I saw the beer cans.
Carlsberg, Denmark’s flagship beer, has sponsored Liverpool since 1992 and typically cannot be found within 70 miles of South Bend. But for one game, Carlsberg was available at Notre Dame, and for one night, I was back in Europe.
Using the newly upgraded stadium for more than football makes it a bit like what Liverpool’s archrivals, Manchester United, have nicknamed their stadium: “The Theatre of Dreams.” Unfortunately, long-anticipated stadium concerts scheduled for summer 2020 — Billy Joel, and a George Strait, Chris Stapleton and Brothers Osborne show — had to be postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was such an inspired decision by Notre Dame to make the stadium this multipurpose facility,” says DeCleene. “It has had an unbelievable impact on the local community.” Like football weekends a half-dozen times a year, these events — as well as last summer’s U.S. Senior Open, played at the Warren Golf Course, and the first 2020 presidential debate, scheduled for September on campus — help fill hotels and restaurants, and bring new audiences into the area.
“It just really solidifies the South Bend brand right alongside the Notre Dame brand,” DeCleene says. “It’s events like these that really do show what we’re capable of.”
Rasmus Jorgensen is a reporter for The Elkhart Truth and a former intern for this magazine.