On Nov. 16 of last year, the Michigan Athletic Department sent an email to students with the subject line including: “Seriously, Remember to Set Your Alarm.” It was a reminder for Senior Day.
In comparison to its typical messages, filled with light-hearted puns or practical information, this e-mail seemed almost agitated. The message featured a photograph of a sparsely populated student section with the caption “HOME-FIELD DISADVANTAGE.”
The week before, the Wolverines beat Northwestern in a thrilling overtime game, and nearly a third of the student section never showed up. This was becoming an irritating trend. The Athletic Department wanted to change that for the following week, Senior Day against Iowa.
But during the pregame ceremonies for that game, only a tiny fraction of the student section dotted the bleachers, though more students eventually showed up. It would be the last game under Michigan’s long-standing policy of reserved seating, with the best seats awarded by credit hours accumulated. Seniors typically sat in the front.
The Athletic Department had tried outreach and a new loyalty program, the H.A.I.L application, but nothing worked. It was ready for a new approach.
“We did a study to find out what other schools are charging for student tickets, because maybe we’re too low,” Athletic Director Dave Brandon told AnnArbor.com in July. “Maybe one of the reasons students aren’t showing up is because they feel like they haven’t made enough of a significant investment in the ticket.”
Analysis by The Michigan Daily, which compiled data on student-ticket prices and policies at all 129 FBS or soon-to-be FBS programs, shows how far Michigan went to correct its prices.
Coming off an 8-5 season, Michigan unveiled a new pricing model in April that, at the time, made it the most expensive student football ticket in the nation. The price of a season ticket increased to $295 for seven games in 2013, including service fees, from $205 for six games in 2012.
For an average price of $42.14, students get a night game against Notre Dame, and home games against Nebraska and Ohio State.
In August, Oregon knocked off Michigan to become the most expensive ticket at $360, though it offers nearly 4,000 of its roughly 5,000-seat student section in a game-by-game lottery for free.
The second part of the Athletic Department’s plan proved to be more controversial. Reserved seating was out. General admission seating was in. Early arrivers would get wristbands granting access to the first 22 rows. All others would be assigned to a section when they arrived.
Central Student Government President Michael Proppe, a Business senior, learned of the policy change like everyone else: through an April 23 e-mail. The Athletic Department, he said, hadn’t consulted with CSG or any other students.
“There wasn’t buy-in from the students,” Proppe said. “It was just kind of being handed down, here’s the new policy, like it or leave it.”
Within three hours of the announcement of the new policy, the Facebook group “UMich Students to Reverse the New Football Ticket Policy” had more than 1,500 ‘likes.’ An online petition through CSG gained more than 2,600 signatures in less than 24 hours.
Students, mostly juniors and seniors, felt cheated. They had sat high up in Michigan Stadium, they argued, for the chance to get to the best rows as upperclassmen. Now that opportunity was gone.
In response, CSG itself passed two resolutions: one officially opposing the general-admission policy, and one calling for more student input on future decisions.
Some prospective ticket-holders had recently attended the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four in Atlanta, where the NCAA-run student ticketing process required hours of queuing in a Georgia Dome holding center. There, students lined up five hours prior to the game in a dark, concrete room. Though Michigan gave the best seats to students who attended the most games, skipping the line was rampant. And the wait, with no televisions to watch the early Final Four game, created a mixture of boredom and frustration.
Proppe said some students equated the general-admission policy to Atlanta, where “there’s this perception that you’re being herded like cattle.” By the morning after the announcement, in an unscientific Facebook poll conducted by the Daily with 643 responses, 77.2 percent of voters said they hated the policy.
The green that makes blue go
All student sections, at Michigan and elsewhere, are subsidized. In the case of 78 FBS teams, student tickets are free.
As Dave Brandon told AnnArbor.com: “If we’re going to sell you a ticket at a substantial discount, we want you to be there.”
But many students weren’t there in 2012. Students averaged 5,434 no-shows per game in 2012, up from 4,376 in 2011. The team noticed.
“You just look up there and see that your peers are not up there supporting you in a sense,” said fifth-year senior safety Thomas Gordon.
The Michigan Athletic Department is a big business. Brandon told the University’s Board of Regents he projects $146.4 million in revenue and $137.4 in expenses in the upcoming year. On Wednesday, Stephen Ross donated $100 million — out of a $200 — million gift — to athletics.
But, as Prof. Andrei Markovits notes, schools still have an incentive to keep strong student sections. A strong football team has become part of Michigan’s image, he said. It attracts applicants and even boosts the reputation of a Michigan degree. A rabid fan base is part of that brand.
“And in that context, the student section is actually essential,” said Markovits, a co-author of Sportista: Female Fandom in the United States. “They would not give it up even if they could make a lot more money giving it to the free market, no question.”
Michigan continues to make tickets available to all students at the University. Less than half of FBS schools, 51 total, don’t put a cap on student-ticket allotment. Of those, only 19 are from one of the five major conferences or Notre Dame.
In fact, Michigan will make less money off student tickets in 2013 than in 2012, even with the price increase. The regents’ plan to upgrade the University recreational sports facilities and the Michigan Union requires the use of $1.8 million of Athletic-Department revenue. The Athletic Department says the entire increase in student ticket prices will go toward that project. With roughly 20,000 season-ticket holders, that covers about $1.05 million.
Since 2,000 fewer students bought tickets this season, Michigan loses about $390,000 in revenue.
According to Mark Nagel, a professor at South Carolina who has researched student fees, many schools charge an athletics fee and then charge for tickets. Michigan has no such fee.
“In that regard, Michigan does it right,” Nagel said.
Assigned seating is dying
In an interview with AnnArbor.com, Brandon revealed that when Michigan decided to switch to a general-admission policy, he felt he had no other options.
“We had Denard Robinson doing appeals and (Michigan) coach (Brady) Hoke doing appeals,” Brandon said, referring to the attendance issue. “And we were talking about it in the student newspaper, and we were going around campus and we were really trying to get people to understand how important this was.”
The Athletic Department declined comment for this story.
To Brandon’s credit, the Daily’s analysis shows, assigned-seating policies across the nation seem endangered. Michigan was the last school in the Big Ten to use a pure assigned-seating policy, and just eight out of 129 schools — none in the Big Ten — currently use an assigned-seating policy. Twelve other schools employ a hybrid model, partially using assigned seating. Wisconsin, for example, has a general-admission policy for each section, but allows students to pre-select a section so they can sit with friends.
Brandon named Nebraska, specifically, as a school the department researched. Nebraska switched to general-admission in 2008, with one tweak: students are assigned to sections of the stadium, and seniors get to select a section first.
“It gives upperclassmen priority in their seating location, and allows students the freedom to sit with large groups of friends at our games,” said Keith Mann, Nebraska’s assistant athletic director for media relations.
Mann said the policy has improved attendance and involvement. Michigan made no such tweaks, though Proppe had lobbied for the policy to grandfather in upperclassmen.
Plus, some wondered whether the general-admission policy would actually solve the attendance issue.
“General admission may do that, but it is not guaranteed to do that,” said Rod Fort, a professor of Sport Management at the University and co-director of the Michigan Center for Sport Management. “I have seen other stadiums where general admission leads to ‘reservation protection’ behavior. For example, a campus social group may simply send four of their people in early — or in line — and then require that they save two blocks of seats.”
By 2:07 p.m. before the Central Michigan game, though, the department had handed out all of its wristbands for early-arrivers. To improve the student experience and avoid a situation like Atlanta, the Athletic Department reached out to Proppe and others. Chief Marketing Officer Hunter Lochmann personally delivered pizza. There was water and toilets. TVs showed College GameDay and disk jockey’s played music. By the 3:37 kickoff, the student section was full.
Some upperclassmen nonetheless expressed frustration with the policy, which no longer guarantees them the best seats. In the first CSG meeting of the school year, Proppe said that the resolution — calling for more student involvement in Athletic Department decisions that affect students — had worked.
“(The Athletic Department) got some bad press on it and now they are turning it around,” Proppe said.
But that’s only partially true. The Athletic Department will send representatives to the Sept. 17 CSG meeting. Proppe said they assured him students will be advised on future ticketing issues. But for now, the football policy seems to be set in stone.
Before Proppe spoke at the May Board of Regent’s meeting, he received an 8 a.m. phone call from Brandon.
“I think he definitely understood there was negative reaction from the students and so he, I would speculate, he wanted to get buy-in from students,” Proppe said of the 30-minute call.
Brandon said he understood the complaints, according to Proppe, but the decision had already been made.