- Allison Farrand/Daily
By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Editor
Published February 25, 2014
A minute before the biggest home basketball game of the year, and Teddy Sallen and his roommate were laughing.
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Not because of their seats — they were behind the basket, halfway up the upper bowl — or even a joke, at least an intentional one, anyway.
It was at a video playing on the video board just moments before tip-off against Michigan State on Sunday that had just proclaimed the Maize Rage the best student section in the conference, just as public address announcer Bobb Vergiels had declared minutes earlier.
Such buffoonery has come to be expected from the Athletic Department under the direction of Dave Brandon — lots of cheesy talk and over-the-top marketing that typically lacks the walk to back it up.
So Sallen, an Engineering freshman, was laughing. A few sections to his right, so was LSA senior Jonah Rosenbaum, who “thought it was hilarious.”
It was laughable, hilarious, incredible, absurd and above all — in a category that is judged on such unquantifiable and subjective factors — unmistakably incorrect. But since someone in Michigan’s vastly expanding marketing department opened the discussion, I’ll play along. The Maize Rage, the Michigan men’s basketball student section, is at best No. 7 in the conference; Minnesota in a good year can arguably push it down to No. 8.
But while the Athletic Department likes to deflect blame, this one can’t be pinned on the students.
“If you put the students by the court and you care about them, you care about the experience, you’ll have a great environment,” Rosenbaum said. “If you don’t, you’ll have Crisler Center.”
Officially, students are allotted 3,000 of Crisler’s 12,707 seats, though an additional 300 were saved for Sunday’s game in anticipation of increased student demand. However, just 653 of those seats are in the lower bowl, and fewer than 400, a meager 12 percent of the student allocation, are the courtside bleacher seats that encompass the heart of the Maize Rage.
Compared with the Spartans’ Izzone, which wraps around three-fourths of the arena, pitting thousands of screaming students right on top of opposing players, Crisler is practically a friendly confine.
And at least a friendly confine awards some character to the environment, which it had little of in the buildup to Sunday’s game — the biggest home game of the season against the school’s biggest rival.
Less than an hour before game time, the building was dead — save for a slew of corporate and University ads and the occasional chorus of boos or cheers when the teams entered or exited the floor. Though nearly every student seat was filled 50 minutes before game time, the lack of buzz was palpable with two-thirds of the students a great distance from the floor and only a handful of non-students already in the building. It was a stark contrast from the game in East Lansing a month earlier, when the Breslin Center atmosphere was fully charged well over an hour before tip-off.
“It was dead in there — it’s embarrassing,” Sallen remembers of the two hours spent before the game sitting in the upper bowl of Crisler. “You’re sitting there waiting for the clock to run down and the game to start because that’s all there is to really think about. You’re not in the environment of getting all crazy and rowdy. You’re just another spectator that happens to have a general admission ticket.”
Added Rosenbaum: “It’s definitely deflating. The whole thing is just a corporate environment, which is fine for the Super Bowl, but it shouldn’t be that way for Michigan basketball. If you look at the great programs, the really crazy places to play college basketball, that’s not what they’re like. They’re not run like it’s Domino’s.”
LSA sophomore Yale Williams arrived at Crisler at 6:45 a.m., early enough to score seats in the bleachers because his three experiences sitting in the upper bowl were “almost like watching it on TV,” with those around him sitting through the game’s entirety, texting or talking to friends. The high levels of disengagement in the upper bowl contrasts greatly to the students in lower-bowl seating, especially in the bleachers, where students stand for the duration of games.
Business senior Alex Loewenstein echoed those comments as the reason why, after sitting mostly in the upper bowl last year, he opted to watch the games from home this season.
“I can’t justify to myself spending two hours in line or paying that much money when I know I’m going to sit in the upper bowl,” he said.
Central Student Government President Michael Proppe, a Business senior and season-ticket holder himself, has made the student experience at sporting events a pivotal part of his agenda. Though the general admission policy for football games has loomed larger on campus, a matter reflected in Proppe’s conversations with the Athletic Department and in CSG meetings, the Crisler conundrum has recently caught his attention.
He and CSG Vice President Bobby Dishell, a Public Policy junior, have been gathering data, not only on Maize Rage attendance, which he said has been “very high,” but on where Crisler’s student section stacks up against Big Ten competitors.
“It seems like right now we are one of the smaller courtside student sections in the Big Ten,” Proppe said. “Given where our program is at and the level of student interest, I think the evidence is pretty compelling … that in the next year or so, expanding the lower-bowl student section should be given pretty serious consideration.”
Still, though, Proppe expressed caution that any major change will be made in the immediate future. While smaller adjustments, such as moving up the claim period closer to the game dates, could happen for next season, he believes that it’ll take at least a couple more years of high attendance figures “before they start to re-seat the entire arena.”
So while an expanded bleacher section wrapping around the arena is certainly unrealistic in the next season or two on the heels of the 2011 interior renovations to Crisler, the Athletic Department can choose to make short-term adjustments, such as converting current non-student sections in the lower bowl to student seating, much like the 250-seat section 130.
“It’s something that’s on their mind, but it’s not being given a super-serious look,” Proppe said. “I think it’s going to take some sustained pressure … to accelerate that.”
Following the win in East Lansing, Brandon turned to a Michigan State athletic official and said, “I’m jealous” of the “incredible” atmosphere he witnessed — even in spite of a Spartan loss. It was an atmosphere Brandon would certainly love to bring to Ann Arbor, but is it enough of a desire to come at the cost of losing the Preferred Seat Donations — hefty charges in addition to the per-game cost — from non-student season ticket holders in the lower bowl?
Only time will tell, but Brandon’s track record suggests the answer is no. So while the pockets of one of the richest athletic departments will continue to grow, so too will student unrest with the department.
“I don’t think there are too many administrations out there that care less about the student experience,” Rosenbaum said.
The message Brandon is sending to the students — the ones expected to be future donors and season-ticket holders — is clear, and it’s not one that can be soothed over with preposterous attempts to flatter.
Because if the Athletic Department wants to flaunt the Maize Rage as the best anything, it’s high time it starts treating its students like it.
Daniel Wasserman can be reached at email@example.com or on twitter @d_wasserman.