Column: UM Football Policy A Bad Bet

Big-money approach shortchanges students, undercuts loyalty
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

For decades, students at Michigan football games were assigned seats, with the seniors getting the best ones. But last year, according to the Michigan athletic department, roughly a quarter of the 22,000 people in the student section were no-shows. So, athletic director Dave Brandon decided to switch the student section from assigned seating to general admission – first come, first seated – to get them to show up on time. Or, at all.

In fairness, growing student apathy is not unique to Michigan, nor is the move to general admission seating. And not all top programs allow every student who wants season tickets to get them, as Michigan always has.

Nonetheless, the students, who were accustomed to starting in the end zone as freshmen, then moving year by year toward mid-field, went ballistic. They gathered more than 2,000 signatures for a petition, and 1,500 “likes” for their movement on a Facebook page, just three hours after the announcement. In an admittedly unscientific poll conducted by The Michigan Daily, 85 people said they “love it” while 497 said they “hate it.”

Yes, some students can display a breathtaking sense of entitlement. And they won’t get much sympathy from the average fans, who have to pay two or three times more for their tickets, plus pay out a Personal Seat Donation – and that’s only after they get off a wait list, which costs another $500 just to get on it.

But before we bash the students too much, perhaps we should ask why they’re not showing up. Getting mad at your paying customers for not liking your product as much as you think they should, then punishing them for it, is probably not something they teach at Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

“Why didn’t the athletic department ask for any student input before implementing this?” asked Central Student Government president, and business school student, Michael Proppe. Good question.

But if the athletic director didn’t ask the students what they thought about the new policy, or why they arrive late or not at all, I have a few hunches. Because tickets are so expensive now, and games take so long, the current students didn’t go when they were kids – which is when you get hooked on watching the band flying out of the tunnel and the players touching the banner. No matter how tired or hungover we were in college, we wouldn’t think of missing those moments.

Of course, our habit formed because we knew the game was going to start at 1:05, every Saturday, for years. Now it could be noon, or 3:30, or 8 – and sometimes they don’t tell you when until a couple weeks before the game.

Why? TV, of course. Which is to say, money.

Back then, we also knew Michigan would be playing a solid opponent – every game. In Bo Schembechler’s 21 seasons, they played 59 regular-season games against non-Big Ten teams. How many were not from major conferences? Exactly one: Long Beach State, in 1987. The other 58 all played in what we now call BCS conferences – where the big boys play.

My freshman year, Michigan played all nine Big Ten opponents, and two non-conference teams. Central, Western, or Eastern Michigan? No, try 20th ranked Notre Dame on the road, and 12th ranked UCLA at home. My junior year, Michigan’s first two home games were against first-ranked Miami and 16th-ranked Washington. Think we got there on time?

Now they give us a steady diet of junk food football from lesser conferences, even lesser divisions, and expect us to pay steakhouse prices. Delaware State, anyone?

Back then, we knew we would be entertained with first-rate football and first-rate band music – and nothing else – because only two games per season were televised. No TV means no TV timeouts. In those few moments we weren’t watching football actually being played, we were listening to music actually being played, with the band treating us to cult classics like Bullwinkle and the Blues Brothers. And the entire event took less than three hours.

Now, every single game is televised, which means commercial breaks, which means games that push four hours, often in the cold. During those breaks, instead of live band music – which you can’t get anywhere else – they often give us recorded rock music, which you can get anywhere else. And now they’re replacing that with ads on the big-screen TVs.  Okay, the ads are for Michigan’s other teams, not toothpaste, but they don’t thrill any students I’ve met.

Some weekends the Wolverines don’t play at all, because after they added a 12th game, for still more money, the longer schedule requires off weeks, and also pushes the Ohio State game to Thanksgiving weekend. So long, out-of-state students!

Everything we could take for granted – the starting time, the schedule, the non-stop fun – the current students cannot.  The students aren’t leaving Michigan football. Michigan football is leaving the students.

Habits are hard to develop, but they’re easy to break. Instead of bringing back the elements that students used to get hooked on in the first place, Brandon increased student tickets by 23 percent.

“Even though they want to try,” Brandon told, “no one can make a claim that we’re doing anything here that’s financially motivated. (Because) we’re not.”

So how, exactly, is a 23% price hike not financially motivated? Brandon says it’s to pay for Recreational Sports, but it all comes from the same pot of money that pays the director of a nonprofit department almost $1 million a year, and pays to replace Schembechler Hall, built in 1990 for $12 million, with something bigger, better and more expensive. They knocked it down this week. I’m guessing they did not tell the donors who wrote those large checks for Bo’s building that they intended to tear it down in 23 years.

Brandon says he simply wants the students to come early, and I’ll take him at his word. But some students are convinced he simply wants to run them off to make room for more full-paying fans, and his decisions – unwittingly, perhaps – have given them fodder for their conspiracy theories.

If Brandon is not answering to the past, is he focused on the future? After angering these students, does he think they’ll come back 10 or 20 years from now, at four times the price – and bring their kids, to keep the chain going?

I wouldn’t bet the Big House on it.

But Brandon is.

About the writer: Ann Arbor resident 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 Karen
    May 3, 2013 at 1:59 pm | permalink

    Hi John:

    I like the sentiment. I totally agree about how predictable and contained the games were in our day, and I agree that Michigan Football policy decisions are often based around maximizing revenue (fortunately for women athletes who get a robust program despite the fact that they can’t generate must revenue!).

    You might be interested in this TED Talk by the director of the AIDS Ride in California: [link]

    He challenges our assumption that people who do good works (ie, work for non-profits) have an ethical obligation to earn less than private sector workers. If you think about it, good work ought to pay more than bad work – oughtn’t it?


  2. By A.J.
    May 4, 2013 at 1:10 pm | permalink

    John, I agree with your sentiments here … but the one thing that I think should be mentioned is that much has evolved since then. I myself remember the game against Miami (shouldn’t have celebrated leading 30-14 in the 4th against the #1 ranked team!).

    Probably the most significant thing — and perhaps one of the most significant reasons kids aren’t coming to Michigan stadium — is that the stadium is SO POORLY EQUIPPED to support today’s tech. As a season ticket holder since I graduated, I can say I’ve been absolutely outraged at the lack of even a decent cell phone signal inside the stadium — much less 3G or 4G service. I can’t even call or text my wife to make sure my family’s ok … and today’s kids have been raised in constant digital connection with others. Heck, it’s been noted many times that kids today will text one another even when they’re together!

    Yes, I realize that there are 110,000 people in the stadium, and I know that’s a huge jump in usage in a very small space … and I know that means interference and problems with cell signals.

    So, for all the money we as ticket holders spend on ever-increasing ticket (and PSD) pricing, why can’t Michigan Stadium support us with free wifi to support every butt in the stands? Yep, it would be a lot of infrastructure. Yep, it means Michigan would need to invest again.

    But THAT, in my mind, WOULD attract today’s students because they don’t like being out of touch … and today, when you walk down to your seat in the Big House, you may as well pocket your cell phone because the reception’s so poor.

    To me, this would be focusing on the future. I love the hi-def screens, the great speakers, and the lights. But come ON! Between this and $4 water (ridiculously priced since Michigan Stadium has now prevented fans from bringing our own sealed water bottles into games), Michigan needs to step up and give us VALUE for all the money we’re paying as fans.

  3. May 4, 2013 at 2:27 pm | permalink


    Thanks for your kind words.

    I’ll have to check out the TED talk in question, but riffing off the top of my head, while I certainly believe in fair compensation for non-profit leaders, I also believe anyone involved in a non-profit — and this includes clergy, teachers, nurses, and others — should be motivated far more by passion than profit. (As a university teacher and former high school hockey coach, I come by this honestly.)

    Having the athletic director’s salary tripled to almost a million dollars — plus bonuses — is especially unseemly when the actual talent of the operation — the players, who are the people we’re paying to see — are not paid. And again, the UM athletic department pays no local, state or federal taxes.

    A.J. I actually had a paragraph on just that idea in my earlier draft, but had to cut it for space and flow. If Athletic Directors complain that students won’t come to games because they can’t text, then give them what they want: Temporary cell phone towers. And your list of expenses adds to the problem.