Filling the stands: The evolution of Football Saturdays

Ruby Wallau/Daily
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By Greg Garno, Managing Sports Editor
Published September 23, 2014

Six hours before Michigan is set to kickoff against Miami University (Ohio), Roland Jersevic sets up his tent where the railroad tracks intersect Hoover Street.

Ruby Wallau/Daily
Ruby Wallau/Daily
Ruby Wallau/Daily

His truck is backed in, the tailgate is down and a 60-inch TV is set up in the back. His TV stands out, with a satellite and a pair of speakers that face out to the street.

The table is there, near the grill, with chairs that form a semicircle around the truck. A former timer for the track teams, Jersevic sits alone now, adorning a blue vest over a yellow sweater on an abnormally chilly September Saturday.

Jersevic has done the same thing for decades. He’s been coming since he was a freshman in 1970.

His friends will join him later, as they always do, and he’ll head to his section in the stadium because “a Michigan Man sticks by his team,” he says. Fans will walk by, watch his TV and maybe strike up a conversation.

And Jersevic wears a smile on his face as if it’s new to him every time.

Even as ticket prices rise, commercials spread, schedules disappoint and records fluctuate, Jersevic — a Saginaw, Michigan native — returns to his spot at Hoover and the railroad tracks. He’s one of many, who despite changes to the Football Saturday experience, renew their season tickets every year and show up, ready to tailgate.

“This is a way of life,” Jersevic said. “We came here to Michigan because it’s a great school and this is what makes it part of it.”

There are people from all around who have a similar view as Jersevic, who are motivated to return to a struggling program because it’s as engrained in them. The program, after all, revels in tradition.

The program is shying away from that tradition this season, though. To many fans, the game day experience at Michigan Stadium has become more like a business and less like an experience. But does it need to be?

***

The parking lot at Ann Arbor Pioneer high school fills up slowly before Miami (Ohio) comes to town. The RedHawks haven’t won in their last 18 games.

There are people like Lisa Neitzer who tolerate the repeated losses. She’s been coming to games with her family since she was a young child. She parks her RV at Ann Arbor Pioneer’s parking lot. It’s decorated with block ‘M’s’ and the Big House and Wolverines and the yellow striped helmets.

“This is something, instead of going on a vacation with the family, wherever Michigan goes, we go,” she says. “This is fun.”

She sets up with her family outside the RV — paying the $225 to park it kitty-corner from Michigan Stadium. Neitzer will travel to Piscataway, New Jersey in a few short weeks to watch the Wolverines game against Rutgers. And later, she’ll go to Evanston, Illinois to see them play Northwestern.

Neitzer remembers watching Bo Schembechler, Lloyd Carr, Rich Rodriguez and now Brady Hoke carry on the Michigan coaching legacy. She went with her father to the games when she was young, a tradition which “brainwashed in her,” she described.

Nearly 100 feet away from Neitzer, Jackson resident Tyler Sebastian throws a football back and forth with his brother.

“There’s just nothing else I would rather do on a Saturday,” Sebastian says. “I’ll watch them even if they do play smaller teams or have rough weeks.”

He shows up early because these opportunities don’t come around often. He shows up early because that’s what he’s done since he was 13.

“The biggest thing that brings fans to the Big House is the need to be together, to have shared values, to have that barriers that are all too present too often — race, religion, nationality, age,” said John U. Bacon, University lecturer and New York Times best-selling author, in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “All of these things, whether you’re pursuing poetry, engineering, or Law — it’s the one time of the year when none of that matters, where the second you walk past the turnstile, all of it breaks down.”

***

Across Ann Arbor-Saline Road, the Ann Arbor Country Club golf course also fills up with fans who begrudgingly pay the high price to park their car.

Eric Rife of Temperance, Michigan, still shows up hours before kickoff, setting up a grill with venison wrapped in bacon. Since the beginning of this season, he’s been coming to the games and gets “chills” every time he walks into the stadium.

For all the fans that return to Ann Arbor for the game day experience, every year brings a whole new set of Michigan fans to the nation’s biggest stadium — Rife included.

“New fans are experiencing Michigan Stadium that have never experienced it before and we are confident once they attend a game, they will want to come back in the future,” said Hunter Lochmann, Chief Marketing Officer within the Athletic Department.

This season, Michigan’s seven-game home slate includes one team with more than seven wins — Minnesota, who fell to Michigan last year, 42-13. The better games are on the road, and ticket prices, despite not rising, are still more than a $1,000 investment for regular season-ticket holders.

According to ticket data from Craig Barker, a long-time fan and blogger at the Hoover Street Rag, ticket prices have increased by $30 per game since 2000, averaging to $65 per contest in the 2014 season. The Athletic Department hasn’t raised prices since 2012, but the price per ticket is still at its historical high.

That doesn’t include the hundreds of dollars fans pay for a Preferred Seat Donation Program to maintain the same seating location every year.

***

The frat houses lining State Street rope off their property as if they’re enclosing themselves from the outside. But they blare their music as if they’re holding a wager.

There are empty cans of beer crushed on the sidewalk, girls wearing fanny packs and guys wearing sleeveless shirts. There’s dancing, there’s smoking, there’s drinking. But nowadays, there isn’t always football.

Football Saturday means something different for younger fans — the ones who haven’t grown up with Michigan football.

According to Lochmann, this year’s student season tickets holders decreased by 40 percent from last year, during which a general-admission policy that upset upperclassmen was implemented and recalled.

It was enough for the Athletic Department to extend the deadline for purchasing tickets twice, change the ticket policy for older students to sit closer and offer other incentives such as waving the validation cost for student tickets. In fact, just Monday, the Athletic Department teamed up with Coca Cola to give away two tickets with the purchase of two Coke products.

“This has been a challenging year,” Lochmann said. “A lot has been written about our student ticket situation and while we are pleased with our new policies and working closely with student groups (Central Student Government and the Football Advisory Council), a 40 percent decrease in our student season ticket number put us in a hole we are still climbing out of.”

Students like LSA senior Lauren Kettle and LSA sophomore Alex Herzog both had tickets last year, but this year, only Herzog purchased them.

For Kettle, the decision is one she’s been satisfied with, “With the schedule, and it being out of the budget, I just decided not to get them,” she said.

Herzog says she regrets purchasing student tickets.

“I kind of felt like it was something you have to do,” Herzog said. “I feel like I should have gotten some individual games, because I feel that I’m not going to go to all of them.”

Their friends didn’t get tickets and the friends of their friends didn’t get tickets for the same reason: if the tradition of Michigan football isn’t engrained, the value to watch mediocre program does not live up to the cost.

“As a sports marketer, one of the first things you learn is you can't affect what happens on the field, court, etc.,” Lochmann said. “So you need to be prepared off the field, court, et cetera.”

With that comes added pressure of having to fill a stadium with over 100,000 people for every game. Michigan currently holds a 254-game streak of having more than 100,000 tickets sold. But losses like last week’s don’t make maintaining the streak any easier.

***

It isn’t easy to have a profitable program without upsetting fans deeply rooted in tradition. Athletic administrators such as Athletic Director Dave Brandon and Lochmann and have learned that the hard way.

Over the last few years, they’ve partnered with sponsors like Chobani, which sponsors tweets, and Lowes, which sponsors score updates from around the country. On top of that, there’s the Athletic Department’s $84 million, 12-year partnership with IMG — the owner of the University's media rights — that contractually allows for advertisements, Lochmann confirmed.

And though commercialization is within the Athletic Department’s contractual rights, it doesn’t mean fans are always receptive.

Last year, a macaroni and cheese noodle from Kraft in the north side of the stadium upset fans enough that it was removed from the premises within a week. The marching band, once used as the primary form of entertainment, is replaced by music played through the speakers.

“If it wasn’t broke, don’t break it,” Bacon said, referring to the organic Michigan Marching Band chants that once held the place of piped in music. “Yes, things change, and I get that.”

“The most fundamental thing occurred organically, from students, fans, the band, the ‘Go Blue’ cheer,” he added. “We don’t need a scoreboard to tell us when to say ‘Go Blue’ — we do that together. That is a place that doesn't need to be programmed.”

University alum Ari Schorr, a marketing professional with Microsoft in Seattle, understands that over time, Michigan athletics will become more of a business.

“It doesn’t bother me, it’s just something we have to accept about college sports,” Schorr said. “There is a commercialization in that it’s almost like a professional sport.”

At the end of the day, Michigan isn’t a professional sport. It’s part of what people like Jersevic pride about being a “Michigan Man.” After all, if Michigan is one of the “leaders and best,” does it need advertisements to sell its brand?

“It doesn’t bother me to the point where I wouldn’t come back,” Jersevic said. “I think it detracts from the Michigan tradition.”

***

The game day experience at Michigan is undergoing a change — one that moves from selling itself independently, to one that needs help being sold.

Lochmann and the marketing department will continue to take advantage of social media and online ticket ordering, utilizing digital trends that continue to progress.

There will be piped in music and there will be ads. It will be a business. It doesn’t have to be completely eliminated to still have fans such as Jersevic or Rife or Neitzer filling the stands. But it will be difficult to draw in audiences that aren’t as faithful to Michigan’s history.

For now, the program is banking on fans that believe in tradition and have been “brainwashed,” like Neitzer, to love Michigan football.

“The Big House is what bonds us,” Bacon said. “No matter what else you have going on campus ... it's the one building on campus where everybody is welcome, everybody knows what to do.

“You feel that energy — 100,000 of your best friends are all feeling the same emotion at the exact same time. There's something very electric about that; it's a very basic human need, and you can't get that on TV. That’s what the department should be selling.”