Last week, I explained why Michigan students are dropping football tickets in record numbers – about 40% in the last two years. It touched a nerve – actually a few hundred thousand nerves. And not just among Michigan fans, but college football fans nationwide, who recognized many of the same flaws at their favorite university that were turning them off, too.
It’s all well and good to criticize Michigan’s athletic administration – and apparently very cathartic for many fans, too. But it doesn’t solve the central problem: How can college programs protect an experience millions of fans and students have loved for decades, before it’s too late?
Yes, winning helps. But when Michigan went 3-9, 5-7, 7-6 a few years ago, they still had a robust wait list. And when USC was winning national titles about the same time, they rarely sold out their Coliseum. Fans obviously love winning, but what they want – what they need – runs deeper than that.
Allow me to offer a few suggestions.
First, some easy ones: Give the fans real opponents, at a reasonable price, then revert the student ticket policy back to what it was, for – well, forever. Freshmen sit in the end zone, and seniors get the best seats. Simple.
Want them to show up on time? Don’t bully them, or tease them with donuts or cell phone service. Just remove the least appealing aspect of a modern football Saturday: boredom.
What’s boring? Waiting in line for 30 minutes to get in your seat. Or worse, being forced to arrive hours before kickoff, with nothing to do but sit in the heat, the cold or the rain, while your classmates are still outside tailgating. Then there’s the 20-minute wait for a six-dollar hot dog.
Fans at home don’t have to wait in line for any of these things. Why should fans who paid hundreds to sit in the stands? Hire a few more folks, reduce the lines, and keep the fans happy.
Everybody’s most hated delay is waiting for TV timeouts to end. Because every game is televised, ticket holders endure about 20 commercial breaks per game, plus halftime. That adds up to more than 30 minutes of TV timeouts – about three times more than the 11 minutes the ball is actually in play.
To loyal fans who sit in a stadium that is too hot in September and too cold in November – and often too rainy in between – this is as galling as taking the time, money, and effort to drive downtown to a local store, only to have to wait while the clerk talks on the phone with someone who didn’t bother to do any of those things.
Why do the powers that be let TV spoil your day at the stadium? TV doesn’t stop car races, golf tournaments or soccer games – yet those still make millions of dollars for all involved. If the TV whizzes can’t figure out how to make a buck on football without ruining the experience for paying customers, those fans will figure it out for themselves, and stay home.
While TV is running its ads, Michigan too often gives its loyal season ticket holders not the marching band or – heaven forbid – silence, but obnoxiously loud rock music and, yes, ads! Spectators spend hundreds of dollars to suffer through almost as many ads as the folks watching at home for free. Sssssuckers!
Yes, advertising in the Big House does matter. Americans are bombarded by ads, about 5,000 a day. Michigan Stadium used to be a sanctuary from modern marketing, an urban version of a national park. Now it’s just another stop on the sales train.
I’m amazed how eagerly universities have sold their souls to TV. It wasn’t always this way. Bo Schembechler said, “Toe meets leather at 1:05. If you want to televise it, fine. If you don’t, that’s fine too.”
Bo’s boss, Don Canham, backed him. TV was dying for a night game at the Big House. Canham wasn’t. So, they compromised – and didn’t have one.
If fans want night games, fine – give ‘em what they want. But nobody likes waiting for TV to decide when Michigan is going to play that week – especially fans flying in from far away.
This past fall, ESPN descended on Evanston, Illinois, for a game between Ohio State and Northwestern – a rarity. When ESPN told the folks at Northwestern to get rid of these shrubs and those bushes near Lake Michigan, because ESPN wanted to build their set there, Northwestern did something none of the big boys have the guts to do: They said, “No. You can set up where we planned it.”
What did ESPN do? They followed Northwestern’s orders. What else could they do?
The universities still have the power – but only if they’re willing to use it.
Okay, you start dictating terms to TV networks, they might cut back on the cash (though I doubt it). But even if they did, what would that mean? Perhaps Michigan’s rowing team would have to make do with a $20 million training facility, instead of a $25 million one. Maybe Michigan’s head coach would have to get by on $2 million a year, instead of $4 million. Perhaps Michigan’s athletic director – and yes, he does pay himself – might just have to feed his family on $300,000 a year, instead of $1.3 million.
I think universities could somehow survive these deprivations. It would be worth it if, in the bargain, they get their souls back.
Which brings me to legendary Michigan broadcaster Bob Ufer, who often said, “Michigan football is a religion, and Saturday is the holy day of obligation.” He was on to something. Athletic directors need to remember the people in the stands are not customers. They’re believers. Treat them accordingly – or lose them forever.
That is not unique to Michigan. Researching my latest book, “Fourth and Long,” I met Dr. Ed Zeiders, the pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in State College. He has seen what a college football team can do for a community in ways others might not.
“We are desperately needy,” he told me. “We need a place to stand, and a people to stand with, and a cause to stand for. That is not original with me. That came out of World Methodism. And those three propositions hold the key to healthy and value-oriented living. Our culture is devoid of these things.”
Pastor Ed, as he’s known, fills those needs every week at his church. But he couldn’t help but notice the place of worship down the street can host 108,000 believers every Saturday.
“Sports has the capacity to make that happen,” he said. “That can get skewed and twisted, especially in the marketing side of the equation, but my interest in sports is more in the community that forms around them.”
And this brings us to the central problem: a misguided mindset driving the entire enterprise into the ground. If you think the University of Michigan is just a brand, and the athletic department is merely a business, you will turn off the very people who’ve been coming to your temple for decades.
Break faith with your flock, and you will not get them back with fancier wine. Welcome them, and the faithful will follow.
You have a choice. Just remember: The fans do, too.
About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,” “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at johnubacon.com.
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