Column: Fixing College Football

Here's how the University of Michigan and other college athletic programs can protect an experience that millions of fans and students have loved for decades – before it’s too late
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

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

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  1. By Tom Whitaker
    June 13, 2014 at 9:46 am | permalink

    I miss local food vendors and marriage proposals towed behind airplanes.

  2. By Bob Martel
    June 13, 2014 at 10:54 am | permalink

    My solution is a bit simpler: ban the broadcast of all collegiate athletics on TV. Big money gone, problem solved.

  3. By Paul LaRoe
    June 16, 2014 at 2:02 pm | permalink


    Since I read your article last week, my ADD mind has been working non stop on the subject of ticket sales and the mindset of those who have given up their season tickets after 25 and 35 years. There is also the group that have been thinking the same thoughts and just haven’t made the move to give them up yet. Yes, after giving up my season tickets in about 2010 after 35 years, I did go through some withdrawal. If I was to start a new business today, maybe I would start a 12 Step Program for people giving up their season tickets after many years of being addicted to Michigan football. I think it may have a great future with an up and coming increasing customer base to draw clients from.

    For me, the magic is gone and I can not seem to put the Genie back into the bottle. As it is in life, you can never go back to yesteryear, I believe holds true for Michigan football. The past is gone, the future is not here yet, and all we are left with is this present moment.

    It is my belief, that this sudden shift in change in regards to student ticket sales and the waiting list to become a season ticket holder, has been in the works for some time. There is no “One” thing that has brought about the shift in the pendulum. It’s a number of things, that have occurred over time that collectively has brought this to a head where it is now very visible (drop in student ticket sales and drop in number of people on the waiting list). What you have stated in your article John, is what people have been thinking for some time, and there is more than what you have stated.

    Remember how home values seemed to continue to go up in value, year after year after year, increasing ones equity? Yes, if you were an existing home owner it was great. If you were looking to buy your first house, it was terrible, as homes were way too expensive and you struggled to make enough money to be able to qualify for financing. Many people believed it was the most sound investment a person could make and was a means to growing an asset that could be cashed in for retirement. No one believed that we would have the housing crash that we did. It didn’t seem possible after so many years consistently growing higher and higher in value. But it did. And once it started it began to pick up speed and momentum.

    First, it seemed to be within the sub-prime mortgages that were given to any person with a pulse. The chair of the federal Reserve that they had their arms around the problem and that it was under control. Wrong. It was only just beginning.

    I use the housing analogy because I believe there is a similarity in college football. College football has been on an upward trend for many, many years. It seems there has been this relentless pursuit of more more, better better, bigger bigger, in terms of exposure, marketing, and dollars earned and dollars spent on and about the game. I have often thought, this trend can not go on forever. At some point it has to peak. AS those who believed home values could do nothing but go up in value, there are those who believe college football can only continue to grow. There belief is that there will be more teams on TV which will increase their revenue and support their programs. They believe more teams should be included in competing for the mythical National Championship and that we should go to a playoff system. They believe that as some teams become very successful, both on the field and financially, their success will trickle down to others. I’m sorry to say that trickle down economics is voodoo economics and that what is true in the financial world also holds true for college football.

    I never thought house values would drop in value as they did, but they did, and I suffered the consequences of being heavily invested in real estate and being highly leveraged.

    I also never thought I would give up my Michigan football season tickets, but I did. It was such that along the road of my journey that life had a major bump in the road, and I had to make different choices. My business that had been so successful for 30 years was no fighting for its life. Those six season tickets I had all of a sudden did not have the same value to me as they once did, and I gave them up.

    It’s my belief that others are finally seeing the light as well. Especially the long time season ticket holders. In the last few years they have seen their price for tickets continue to escalate, the institution of a seat tax, the ban on bringing water and containers into the stadium. They have experienced the move by the administration to have seven home games, by adding some lesser opponent who will not demand a return visit by the Michigan team. The long term fan has continued to support THIER Michigan Football TEAM. As Bo had said many years ago, The Team, The Team, The Team, nothing comes before the Team. Many a fan held that same belief, and that the only way they would miss a home game was if they were dead, or on their death bed.

    I had great respect and admiration for Bo, not simply as a football coach, but more for what he stood for and believed in. I have learned more about life, values, leadership, loyalty, perseverance, patience, friendship, commitment and working together for a common goal following Michigan football and listening to Bo every chance I could get, than the other areas of my life combined.

    You see, football used to more than just football. It was a time where you could learn many valuable lessons of life. You learned that you had choices, and that you better think hard and long about the choice you were about to make. In Bo’s days, there was not the continued issues with player behavior that we have today. Back then, it seemed that you never discovered that a player had crossed the line and had faced the consequences of his choice. You would discover it often when you were reading through the Michigan program and discovered one of the players you were looking forward to seeing play this year was not longer on the roster. Bo had simply, freed up their future.

    I know Dave Brandon played under Bo, but I believe there were some lessons that Bo taught that he somehow has either overlooked or forgotten. Sometimes we think we know more than what we really know. Sometimes we think our beliefs are the right beliefs, only to discover in time that they were simply beliefs, that you had held onto for much longer than you should have.

    As I started my comment, wanted to list all the little things that have occurred over time to which I believe have contributed to the shift of the pendulum. I apologize for getting sidetracked and expressing my emotional connection to Michigan football and only a few reasons why the change of heart.

    Until next time, Go Blue. I’m still a fan, just not the committed, dedicated, loyal fan I once was.