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Daniel Wasserman: Expand the Maize Rage

Allison Farrand/Daily
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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.

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.