Column: The True Cost of Football Tickets

University of Michigan jacks up "seat licenses," fans feel like fools
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

This week, the University of Michigan announced an increase in the cost of “seat licenses” for football season ticket holders.

Before I dive into what all this means, let me explain what a “seat license” is, because, if you’re a normal person, it won’t make much sense.

A “seat license” is a fee that teams make their fans pay just to reserve the right to buy the actual tickets. They call it a donation – which is a stretch, since every fan apparently decided to donate exactly the same amount, or lose our tickets. But that allows us to claim it as a gift to a state university, and a tax deduction.

It’s hard to call that honest. Thanks to the latest hike, it’s hard to call it cheap, either.

In fairness, Michigan was the last of the top 20 programs, ranked by attendance, to adopt a seat license program, in 2005 – even though Michigan always finishes first in attendance. And the seat licenses started gradually: $250 for the best seats the first year, then $500 the second. They were nice enough to spare the folks in the endzone.

But this week Michigan pushed the seat license for the top ticket up to $600 each, and even the folks in the endzone will have to pay $150 per ticket, just for the right to buy them. In the past decade, the total cost of my two tickets on the ten-yard line has more than tripled, to over $1,700. But my seats are no better, and the schedule keeps getting worse.

It makes you wonder how we got here.

I can remember on football Saturdays our parents giving us five bucks each, and that would cover a two-dollar student ticket, a hot dog, a coke, and a little plastic football to toss around outside the stadium at halftime. That finski made the Michigan football players the cheapest babysitters in town. We got hooked watching the band flying out of the tunnel, the players leaping up to touch the banner, and the little dogs, Whiskey and Brandy, nosing a soccer ball up and down the field at halftime. We fell in love with it all – and I couldn’t wait for football season to come around again.

When we became Michigan students, it never occurred to us that we wouldn’t go to every game we could. What else would you want to do?

Former Michigan Athletic Director Don Canham sold the experience – and we bought it. Canham was a great marketer, but what impressed me most was what he would not do for money: solicit donors, put advertising on the uniforms or in the stadium, charge for tours – or ask for a raise. He had already made millions in business, and didn’t feel the need to squeeze more from his alma mater.

The current athletic department now aggressively seeks donors and corporate sponsors. It has brought advertising back to Crisler, in a big way, and has started sneaking advertising into the once-pristine Big House, too. They now charge to host corporate events, wedding receptions, and even school tours, which had been free since the Big House opened in 1927. Heck, until a few years ago, they didn’t even lock the gates during the week.

Michigan’s not alone, of course, and they will tell you it’s the cost of doing business – but what business, exactly? When current Athletic Director Dave Brandon said on “60 Minutes” that the “business model is broken” – what he failed to grasp was that it’s “broken” because it was never intended to be a business in the first place. After all, what business doesn’t have to pay shareholders, partners, owners, taxes, or the star attractions, the players and the band?

From its inception over a century ago, the athletic department’s goal was simply to be self-sustaining. They exercised a balance between meeting the financial needs of the athletic program, and restraining themselves from becoming a simply-for-profit professional team. But the goal now is more, more, more, with no limits in sight – but for what?

Skyrocketing salaries, for starters. In 1969, Bo Schembechler came to Michigan for $21,000. Today Brady Hoke receives $3.25 million a year – 155 times more than Bo received his first season – and Hoke is still a half-million dollars behind Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz.

When Bill Martin reluctantly accepted the job of athletic director in 2000, he insisted he be paid a dollar his first year, and his second, before agreeing in his third year to the middling rate of about $300,000. Like Canham, Martin had become a multi-millionaire businessman, and didn’t want to be a burden to his alma mater. He later turned down the president’s offer to double his salary, and declined all bonuses, while removing all advertising from Crisler Arena.

His successor, Dave Brandon, served as the CEO for two Fortune 500 companies, and is worth well over $100 million. His salary at Michigan is fast approaching a million dollars, including bonuses. For the first time in Michigan’s long history, the athletic director makes more than the president.

The people behind our current “business model” count on our boundless passion for Michigan football to keep us coming back – and they know how to exploit it. But my passion is for the players and the band and the tailgaters who will give just about any passerby a hot dog and a beer, simply for the asking. My love is not for the money-changers trying to turn a buck on every facet of our fun.

I might not be alone. For the first time since Bo got here in 1969, when attendance started growing every year, you’re starting to see the trend go the other way. Some games this year you could see thousands of empty seats, most of them in the student section, and I have a theory as to why.

Walk around Michigan Stadium, and you won’t see many kids. How many parents want to shell out a few hundred bucks for what is now the most expensive babysitter in town? Better to leave the kids at home, bring your business associates, and call it a tax deduction.

When these kids become college students, they are not addicted to Michigan football the way we were. Many of them could take it or leave it – and they proved it this fall.

But none of this solves my problem, the same one thousands of longtime fans are facing: Will I shell out $700 for my two seat licenses? Yeah, I probably will. And they know it.

But for the first time since I plunked down two bucks for a student ticket 40 years ago, I feel less like a loyal fan, and more like a fool. And that doesn’t feel good.

This might be the dawn of a new era – or the dusk of an old one.

About the writer: John U. Bacon is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” – both national bestsellers. His upcoming book, “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,” will be published by Simon & Schuster in September 2013. You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at

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  1. By Grady
    December 14, 2012 at 9:54 am | permalink

    It is hard to blame Brandon, since obviously he was hired with the mandate of squeezing every dollar out of this program he can. My issue has long been these super smart people cant see the forest beyond the trees. They are killing the golden goose and acting befuddled when it happens.

    When you build up games like the Alabama game into a “bowl like atmosphere” (Brandon’s words) the downside is every other normal game becomes second fiddle. I cannot recall so little interest in U-M’s home opener this year because the ‘Bama game took so much wind out of the season. Playing Notre Dame under the lights is fun – for that moment. Then, you have to play a cupcake the next weekend and fans, alumni, etc. are not all that fired up, are they? Are the payers either? Why should they be excited to play Indiana at noon? ND at night is the event; who cares about the other games.

    It was not that long ago tickets were at a premium and you had to pay above face to get in – every game. Then the NCAA added a 12th game, which gave U-M as many as 8 home games a season. Now, I can get tickets to most games for $20 the day off (this past years schedule was terrible) and pay face for the MSU game. Where is my incentive to buy season tickets?

    Throw in gimmick games and how much interest will there be against Northwestern in November in the cold? The program has trained its fans to focus on the gimmicks at the cost of normal Big Ten games. This is also a trend of college football, so U-M is not alone. But the focus should be on the Big Ten games. As the author pointed out, the games were the experience, not the gimmicks of today.

    There are as many as 8 games on a normal Saturday at the same time, just on basic cable. Over exposure is hard to predict because you are never over exposed until you are over exposed. The key is not to get to that point. The NCAA is quickly approaching that point, but they do not seem to notice it as long as the cash keeps coming in.

    If you up the price for the tickets and there are empty seats where there were none before, perhaps you made a bad decision. If you pretend non-conference games are a big deal, don’t be surprised when conference games are not a big deal. If the NCAA wants 8 games on Saturday afternoon, don’t be surprised if fans sit home on the couch and watch them on their flat screen.

    Perhaps Brandon and the U-M will listen to the fans (and the empty seats) and re-think their position.

    After all, that is what a good businessman would do.

  2. By Carol
    December 14, 2012 at 9:55 am | permalink

    This the situation as it stands in college football. I gave up UofM games after junior high when we could no longer get into a game at half time free. Somehow I keep track of the team but never get to see the band which has always been a great part of the show. And I still bleed maize and blue, but not over the football program. I know it supports all athletics, and that is a good thing, but at what cost?

  3. By Matt
    December 15, 2012 at 6:37 am | permalink

    I remember the cheap seats in the 70′s, most
    Ann Arbor kids from that era had a blast
    on those Saturdays. I don’t really have an
    issue with rising ticket prices, it’s how It
    has to be.However, I do have a problem
    with the way they cram more and more
    people in the stadium every season
    to hold on to the attendance record,
    and I’m no longer comfortable being
    shoehorned into a bench that has
    at least 10 more people on it then
    there should be if our relative comfort
    was a concern of theirs. I love the
    pre game tailgating experience
    outside the stadium, and I go
    to most of the home games to
    experience this, and only went
    into the stadium twice after
    tailgating. On the days that I
    didn’t go in I went to a local
    bar to watch it on a big screen
    TV, and I also viewed a game
    on a TV that was on the side
    of another fans mobile home
    at the golf course, that was
    interesting. I think this is
    way I will do this from now
    on, unless I can buy my way
    Into one of the skyboxes, which
    probably won’t happen. Us
    older fans need to be comfortable,
    I’m willing to pay extra for that

  4. By Jonathan
    December 15, 2012 at 9:03 am | permalink

    Its the difference between providing exciting community stimulation and exploiting the communities interest.

  5. By RW
    December 28, 2012 at 6:44 pm | permalink

    “His successor, Dave Brandon, served as the CEO for two Fortune 500 companies, and is worth well over $100 million. His salary at Michigan is fast approaching a million dollars, including bonuses. For the first time in Michigan’s long history, the athletic director makes more than the president.”

    While I agree with the basic premise — the cost structure on both the buy and the sell side is out of hand — my understanding is that Brandon has donated on the order of $4MM back to Michigan. If true, he has been, and will be for another 2 years or so, working for free. My take is that he isn’t taking the money because he needs it, but because the university, as it does in other cases, needs to establish benchmarks for future talent and to keep the budgetary process in touch with external market realities (as to compensation practices and the trust “cost” of the pricing framework).