Nebraska’s Brand Power amid 5 Consecutive Losing Seasons? What the TV numbers say


LINCOLN, Neb. — Four words on the back-facing side of the archway that separates the red carpet outside of Nebraska’s locker room and the green turf on the floor of Memorial Stadium symbolize the brand that has held firm through titles and times of trouble.

“I Play for Nebraska.”

It’s simple, yet eloquent and marks Erik Chinander’s favorite spot within the football complex.

“It’s a different age of college football today,” said Chinander, the Huskers’ fifth-year defensive coordinator, “but we just want to be proud to play at Nebraska. When we walk through these halls and walk onto that practice field or into that stadium, it’s got to be special.

“And you’ve got to earn the right to do that.”

Nebraska’s brand has endured an assault over the past decade — from the residual of a conference change that took a toll larger than school leaders anticipated to five consecutive losing seasons ahead of the schedule this fall, set to kick off Aug. 27 in Dublin against Northwestern.

But like those words emblazoned in concrete at the old stadium, the state of the Nebraska reputation is resilient, if not everlasting.

Consider the dates. The Huskers’ Black Friday meeting with Iowa last year rated as the most-watched game in the history of the Big Ten Network, with an audience of 1.95 million. Nebraska in 2019 played in two of the nine most-watched BTN games of the past seven seasons (excluding pandemic-stricken 2020, with its altered schedules).

TV viewership for Nebraska since 2015 on all networks with publicly available data, at 2,451 million per game, ranks second in the Big Ten West behind Wisconsin. The Huskers sit sixth in the league overall, ahead of division rivals Iowa, Minnesota and Northwestern, against which they have won three of 15 games in the past five seasons.

Average TV audience for Big Ten teams 2015-2021 *

*Nationally broadcast regular-season games with available audience numbers via Sports Media Watch; excludes the pandemic-altered 2020 season.

The Ohio State and Michigan brands dominate Big Ten football, a reality unchanged since before the Huskers joined the conference in 2011. Nebraska, though, despite its wayward trajectory and narratives to suggest otherwise, remains a factor in this era of widespread change in the sport . The Huskers sit in security in the Big Ten, which is adding USC and UCLA and finalizing a new media rights deal projected to top $1 billion.

That’s not to say the school, without improvement in performance, can remain for long in a position of strength.

“Winning matters,” second-year Nebraska athletic director Trev Alberts said. “But I think our brand is strong. And just like with our fan base, we can’t take that for granted.”


Alberts is a student of football history. He’s taken note, he said, of programs that lost prestige and the support that comes with a strong reputation. For that reason, he especially values ​​a rivalry like Nebraska-Oklahoma. Alberts participated in the series, beating the Sooners three times in Big Eight play during his four-year playing career at Nebraska from 1990 to 1993.

Oklahoma toppled the Huskers 23-16 in Norman last year, and the Sooners visit Lincoln on Sept. 17.

“These are the games that fans want to see,” Alberts said.

Nebraska’s brand soared in visibility over decades of its storied series with Oklahoma.

“That’s the reason why I came here as a student-athlete,” the 52-year-old AD said.

It’s not entirely different today for Garrett Nelson, a decorated edge rusher like Alberts. Nelson, entering his fourth season at Nebraska, draws his identity, he said, from his status as a Blackshirt — a starting member of the Huskers defense.

“It’s what I’ve known my whole life,” Nelson said.

He was born with brand awareness.

“Everything’s good in the world when Nebraska’s winning football games,” he said, “especially for me. Life hasn’t really made much sense the past few years about why this (losing) has happened.”

Most-watched Nebraska games since 2015*

* Data does not include 2015 and 2016 Miami games, which were part of ESPN-ABC reverse mirror schedule that does not specify data for individual games or pandemic-altered 2020 season.

Jim Delany, the former Big Ten commissioner who retired in 2020, understands the sentiment. He recruited Nebraska to the league 12 years ago, knowing of the potential for rivalries with the likes of Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio State.

Delany sought attention and prestige for the Big Ten that might come as a result of new traditions. But his attraction to Nebraska began in the past.

“There was a huge brand,” he said in a recent interview with The Athletic. “And I thought it fit really nicely.”

Asked if he believed the Nebraska brand had been diminished during the Huskers’ time in the Big Ten, Delany declined to answer.

A survey of recruits in 2018, weeks after the hire of coach Scott Frost in Lincoln, placed Nebraska at No. 21 among the top brands in college football. As in the TV ratings since 2015, it trailed Wisconsin, which registered at 16th, and rated higher than Iowa (No. 39) and Minnesota (No. 51).

A similar survey this year reflected some erosion of the Nebraska brand.

The Huskers slipped 17 spots to 38th, mirroring Wisconsin, while Iowa and Minnesota rose.

Is the brand power of Big Ten West programs shifting to become as indistinguishable as the more recent survey indicates? Perhaps. Of the 10 highest-rated TV network games to involve Nebraska in the past seven years, five occurred in the 2015 and 2016 seasons under former coach Mike Riley.


Outwardly, the big-picture focus for Frost, who’s 15-29 at Nebraska, involves only winning.

“This is a hungry team,” he said last week, mired in preseason practice.

At Big Ten media days last month, the coach presented a stoic image, void of the bravado that marked the early months of his coaching stint with the Huskers.

“I think we have more talent than we’ve had,” he said of the 2022 Huskers. “But it’s got to become a team. That goes for the coaching staff and the football team.”

Top Big Ten Network games since 2015 (excluding 2020)

Year game Viewership (per million)

2021

Iowa-Nebraska

1.95

2019

Ohio State-Northwestern

1.64

2019

Iowa-Nebraska

1.43

2021

Ohio State Rutgers

1.19

2019

Wisconsin-Illinois

1.11

2019

Middle Tennessee State-Michigan

1.1

2021

Akron-Ohio State

1.08

2021

Minnesota-Iowa

0.98

2019

Nebraska-Illinois

0.896

2021

Wisconsin-Purdue

0.734

The message Frost sends to his players is more complex, according to Chinander. Frost delivers it in the form of guest speakers in camp and by inviting the involvement of former players who recognize plenty about the power of the Nebraska brand.

“There’s a rich tradition of football at Nebraska. These guys know and understand that,” Chinander said. “I want that tradition back. The kids want that tradition back.”

Even at Nebraska, where time seems to move slowly and words etched into the underbelly of Memorial Stadium resonate statewide, the same rules ultimately apply in order to stay relevant.

“Look around,” said Mickey Joseph, the Huskers’ first-year receivers coach and a former quarterback for legendary coach Tom Osborne. “We’ve got all the resources in the world. You got the great city of Lincoln, the great state of Nebraska, great people, great fans. You got great coaches, great administrators. Everything’s good around here.

“We’ve just got to put this thing together and win.”

(Photo of Luke Reimer, Quinton Newsome and Cam Taylor-Britt: Dylan Widger / USA Today)

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