Michigan football has sold its soul; here's how to get it back

Jun 13, 2014

Last week, I explained why Michigan students are dropping football tickets in record numbers.

It touched a nerve – actually a few thousand nerves.  Not just among Michigan fans, but college football fans nationwide.

It’s all well and good to criticize Michigan’s athletic administration – and cathartic for the fans, apparently.  But it doesn’t solve the central problem: How can they keep fans happy?

Allow me to offer a few suggestions.

First, when broadcaster Bob Ufer said, “Michigan football is a religion, and Saturday is the holy day of obligation,” he knew what he was talking about.

Always remember the people in the stands are not customers. They’re believers. Treat them accordingly.

Stop trying to sucker them. Give them real opponents, at a reasonable price, then remove the worst aspect of a modern football Saturday: boredom.

Stop trying to sucker them. Give them real opponents, at a reasonable price, then remove the worst 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 kick off, with nothing to do but sit in the heat, the cold or the rain, while your classmates are still tailgating. Then there’s the 20-minute wait for a $6 hot dog.

Fans watching at home don’t have to wait. Why should fans in the stands? Hire a few more folks, and keep fans happy.

But everybody’s most-hated delay is waiting for TV timeouts to end.

Ticket holders suffer through about 20 commercial breaks per game, plus halftime. That’s more than 30 minutes of TV timeouts – about three times more than the 11 minutes of actual action the typical game provides. 

Why do the powers that be let TV spoil your day at the stadium? 

TV doesn’t stop the action at car races, golf tournaments or soccer games – yet those still make millions 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, more fans will stay home. 

While TV is running ads, Michigan too often gives its loyal season ticket holders not the marching band or – heaven forbid – silence, but 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. Suckers! 

Yes, advertising in the Big House does matter. Americans are drowning in ads – an estimated 5,000 a day.

Michigan Stadium used to be a sanctuary. 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 in 1976. He once said, "toe meets leather at 1:05.  If you want to televise it, fine.  If you don't, that's fine too."
Bo Schembechler in 1975. He once said, "toe meets leather at 1:05. If you want to televise it, fine. If you don't, that's fine too."
Credit Michiganensian

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.

Okay, you start dictating terms to TV networks, they might cut back on the payout – 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. 

But I think universities could survive this.  It would be worth it if, in the bargain, they get their souls back. 

The faithful will follow.