Big money pushing kids out of the Big House

Dec 14, 2012

A 'seat license' is a fee fans pay just to reserve the right to buy the tickets.

They call it a donation, even though every single one of us apparently decided to donate the exact same amount, or lose our tickets. But that allows us to call it a tax deduction.

It's hard to call that honest, or cheap.

In fairness, Michigan was the last of the top 20 programs to adopt a seat license program, in 2005.

It started gradually, and left endzone fans alone.

But this week, Michigan pushed the seat license for the best tickets up to $600, and even people in the endzone will have to cough up $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, which makes you wonder just how we got here.

I can remember our parents giving us five bucks each for a two-dollar student ticket, a hot dog, a coke, and a little plastic football.

The football players were the cheapest babysitters in town. We got hooked watching the band flying out of the tunnel, the players jumping up to touch the banner, and two little dogs nosing a soccer ball up and down the field at halftime.

When we became Michigan students, it never occurred to us not to go to every game we could.

Former Athletic Director Don Canharn sold the experience, and we bought it. But I'm more impressed by what he did not do: solicit donors and advertisers, charge for tours, or ask for a raise.

The current athletic department now aggressively seeks donors and corporate sponsors. It has brought advertising back to Crisler, and even started sneaking it into the once-pristine Big House, too.

They now charge for corporate events, wedding receptions, and even school tours.

Michigan's not alone, of course, and they'll tell you it's the cost of doing business, but what business?

When Athletic Director Dave Brandon told "60 Minutes" that the "business model is broken," he failed to grasp it was never intended to be a business.

What business doesn't have to pay shareholders, partners, owners, taxes, or the stars, the players and the band?

From its inception, the athletic department's goal was simply to be self-sustaining. But the goal now is more, more, more - but for what?

Skyrocketing salaries, for starters.

In 1969, Bo Schembechler came to Michigan for $21,000. Today the coach receives over three million a year - 155-times more - and that's not even the highest in the Big Ten.

Previous Athletic Director Bill Martin insisted he be paid one dollar a year. His third year, he accepted the average rate of about $300,000. He turned down the president's offer to double his salary, and all bonuses, while removing advertising from Crisler Arena.

Brandon, a former CEO who's worth many millions, will make close to a million dollars this year, including bonuses. That's more than the president makes - a first, in UM history.

The people behind our current "business model" count on our boundless passion for Michigan football to keep us coming back. But I love 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 - not the moneychangers trying to turn a buck on every facet of our fun.

I might not be alone.

For the first time in decades, students are skipping the games by the thousands, and I think I know why.

You don't see many kids at the games anymore, because how many parents want to shell out a few hundred bucks for the most expensive babysitter in town?

Better to bring your business associates, and call it a tax deduction. But when these kids grow up, they are not addicted to Michigan football, the way we were.

So will I shell out $700 for my seat license? Yeah, probably. And they know it.

But for the first time since I plunked down two-bucks for a student ticket forty years ago, I feel less like a loyal fan, and more like a fool.

We might be witnessing the dawn of a new era, or the dusk of an old one.