It takes green to go blue

Illustration by Alicia Kovalcheck Buy this photo

By Matt Slovin, Managing Editor
Published January 8, 2013

It’s a familiar story to Engineering senior Kanchan Swaroop, though she’ll never remember experiencing it.

On Sept. 14, 1991, quarterback Elvis Grbac led Michigan to a thrilling 24-14 victory over then-No. 7 Notre Dame at the Big House.

It was a career day for Grbac, who completed 20 of his 22 pass attempts — none more famous than his toss to eventual Heisman Trophy winner, wide receiver Desmond Howard. That play, known simply as “The Catch,” involved Howard laying out in the end zone to seal the win on fourth down.

The win breathed new life into a season that would culminate in a Rose Bowl berth for the Wolverines. And a stone’s throw from Michigan Stadium at the University Hospital, Swaroop took her first breaths.

Many students at the University claim to have been Wolverine fans since birth. Swaroop can say so quite literally.

At halftime of the game, with Michigan leading 17-7, Swaroop was born.

“It was perfect timing for (my dad) because he didn’t have to miss any of the game,” Swaroop said.

When the game resumed, her father turned the hospital room television to catch the second half, cradling his newborn baby at the same time.

Earlier this month, Swaroop — who said Michigan football has forever been a part of her family — watched a game from a different vantage point than her usual sixth-row seat in the student section. This time, she traveled to Florida, where she attended the Outback Bowl with her brother Alok, a University alum.

They weren’t alone.

On the road

Though the team’s Rose Bowl hopes dissipated in the season’s final weeks, Michigan, with its notoriously willing-to-travel students and alumni, continues to be a hot commodity for event organizers.

“The Michigan Wolverines are the winningest program in the history of college football, and they have a strong and loyal fan base that is attractive to any bowl game,” said Mike Schulze, Outback Bowl director of communications. “We are excited to have them back to the Tampa Bay area for the first time in 10 years.”

Unlike Swaroop, whose travel plans came together as Michigan’s bowl picture became clearer, other students, such as LSA junior Michael Wick, had theirs fall apart as the season wore on.

After Brendan Gibbons connected on a 38-yard field goal to give the Wolverines the win over Michigan State in October, Wick and his father perused the team’s remaining schedule.

“It became a reality that we could go to the Rose Bowl,” Wick said.

The Wicks knew from experience that tickets and flights become far more expensive after the bowl berths are officially handed out in early December. Last season, they booked a Sugar Bowl package the day before the announcement came that Michigan would meet Virginia Tech in New Orleans. Wick felt comfortable enough in the experts’ bowl predictions to give the trip a green light.

According to Wick, he and his dad purchased round-trip flights to New Orleans for about $700. In the coming days, with the Wolverines formally heading to the Bayou and their plane tickets already purchased, they watched as the prices skyrocketed to well over $1,000. Eventually, the flights sold out.

That’s why the Wicks decided to buy their flights to Pasadena, Calif., as well as a hotel early on in the 2012 football season.

“We knew Michigan fans in the state of Michigan would want to go because it’s ‘The Granddaddy of 'Em All,’” Wick said. “After Michigan State, we made the decision because we looked at the schedule and thought it was a definite possibility. Unfortunately, we got a little surprise at Nebraska.”

One week after the Wolverines edged their in-state rival, they traveled to Lincoln, Neb. to face the Cornhuskers. The offense failed to show up for the tough road task, and the Rose Bowl hopes were, for the most part, derailed.

The Wicks continued to scan prices for a bowl trip, this time looking at the Florida bowls — Capital One and Outback — as the more likely destination for the Wolverines. But after Michigan fell to Ohio State in the season’s final week, all bets were off. Wick and his dad would be home for the holidays.

“It kind of left a sour taste in his mouth,” Wick said of the loss to the Buckeyes.

Wick believes that a large part of the appeal of traveling to a bowl game comes from the Bowl Championship Series. Without it, there is less incentive to make travel plans.

“In other bowls, you might not be playing great opponents,” Wick said. “As far as I’m concerned, a BCS bowl shows you had a great season.”

For Swaroop, driving to Florida from her parents’ home in Maryland allowed her to avoid the holiday airline hikes in her pursuit of the maize and blue.

Swaroop estimated that she spent about $350 on gas driving to Orlando, where she stayed with her maize-and-blue bleeding family, to Tampa, where the game was played, and back to Maryland. Swaroop also spent about $50 on food during her trip south and at the bowl game. Staying over at a friend’s house helped her save money.

Factor in a $30 parking pass and a $135 ticket, and Swaroop spent a grand total of $565 to see the Wolverines play away from the Big House’s friendly confines for the first time in her life. (She once thought of traveling to Columbus for an Ohio State game, but was deterred because of potentially hostile crowds.)

Others, like LSA sophomore Michael Puskar, who described himself as an avid Michigan football fan, said he considered traveling to the Outback Bowl, but decided against it after learning the cost it takes to “Go Blue” out of state.

“If it was the national championship, maybe,” Puskar said. “But the Outback Bowl — no.”

The alumni advantage

Despite the less prestigious bowl bid, the Michigan fan base continues to travel in numbers — just not as large numbers.

According to Brad Whitehouse, senior communications coordinator for the Alumni Association, “there was a big drop” in number of bowl trip packages sold from last year’s Sugar Bowl game to this year. These packages include airfare, hotel and a game ticket.

“Historically, the prominence of the bowl game is a big factor in how many people go, so it was probably a factor this year too,” Whitehouse said. “This year, we also offered a tour to the Cowboy Classic (against Alabama in Dallas) at the start of the season. That was a popular trip, and some alumni probably decided not to go on a second tour in the same season.”

Whitehouse added that the Alumni Association is exploring new ways to help students get to bowl games in the future. But part of the road-warrior Michigan fan base mentality can certainly be attributed to the worldwide alumni network.

“One thing about alumni that is obvious every day at the Alumni Association is that their feeling of connection to Michigan doesn’t go away after they graduate,” Whitehouse said. “I think it’s that strong passion and pride that make them so willing to go to bowl games.”

In the end, sports are big business. Wolverine passion fills seats in stadiums and rows on airplanes. Michigan athletics are like a band, and away games are simply stops on a tour reaching a devoted, national audience. Alumni groups, which Michigan has all over the globe, serve as built-in fan bases, boosting attendance.

In November, the men’s basketball team took part in the NIT Season Tip-Off at New York’s Madison Square Garden. And while an NCAA spokesperson said projected attendance figures aren’t taken into consideration when the event’s selection committee is deciding which teams to invite, event organizers are surely aware that including the maize and blue can lead to increased hype.

“I would say that 80 to 90 percent of the fans in attendance (in New York) were Michigan fans,” said LSA junior Andrew Dorbian, who said seeing the Wolverines play in his home state was “enticing.”

Kinesiology junior Dylan Sherwyn, who attended the NIT Season Tip-Off, said he believes a combination of sustained athletic success and a large alumni base contributes to the willingness of fans to travel.

“Everywhere you go, you can typically find someone who has a connection to Michigan,” Sherwyn said.

Running on spirit

The Maize Rage, the student cheering section for the men’s basketball team, doesn’t shy away from chances to travel either. At an away game against Michigan State in 2010, the student fan section burst through the doors of the Breslin Center while chanting “It’s great to be a Michigan Wolverine.”

For Maize Rage president Kevin Starkey, a Kinesiology senior, who has also been to Wolverine games at Penn State, Northwestern and Purdue, his position is a job motivated and compensated solely in spirit.

“The Maize Rage is a very close group, and we enjoy the games as a social event as well as an experience where we get to cheer for our favorite team,” Starkey said, estimating he spends between 10 and 12 hours per week on Maize Rage-related activities. “The board spends so much time organizing because we are striving towards becoming the best student section in the nation.”

At the Frozen Apple Faceoff after Thanksgiving in New York, a glance at the crowd would reveal that Cornell hockey fans outnumbered Michigan hockey fans. But, Cornell is approximately three times closer to Madison Square Garden than the University is.

The immense hype that surrounds major events is too much for many students to resist. If Michigan loses, as it did in Tampa on New Year’s Day, the students leave with memories and a souvenir. But the chance to see a win is what makes these trips so poignant.

“It was a lot of emotions,” Wick said of the Sugar Bowl celebration in New Orleans. “I may have started to cry.”

Though there was a different result at this year’s bowl game, the sentiment remained for some.

“It was definitely worth it,” Swaroop said of her trip to Tampa. “It feels good to support your team even when they’re not playing in the Big House.”