Let’s be honest: The International Champions Cup match between Real Madrid and Manchester United at Michigan Stadium is a money grab for the Athletic Department, and it’s a way for Michigan to keep building the brand that Dave Brandon so dearly cherishes.
On Saturday, the world’s largest collegiate stadium will welcome legends of the world’s most popular sport. The game will be showcased on national television. It will likely break an attendance record for a United States-based soccer match.
It’s fútbol, not football, and it’s certainly not part of any long-standing Michigan tradition. From the Athletic Department’s standpoint, it’s an event whose merit can be justified almost entirely in economic gain.
The International Champions Cup joins rising seat donation requirements, alternate uniforms, and weddings and proms at the Big House as additional means for profit. And for that reason, it has been subject to criticism.
But for those willing to dive into the history books, the event — or any that might follow — isn’t so unusual. Fielding Yost, the mastermind behind Michigan Stadium, built the venue for the enthusiasm it could bring, but also the financial impact it would have on the University.
Profit-based decisions are nothing new.
How’s this for breaking tradition? In 1929, 1930 and 1931, Yost approved doubleheaders at the Big House to boost revenue.
Before Michigan Stadium opened in 1927, the Wolverines competed at Ferry Field. Despite regular bumps in capacity, increasing demand forced the University to turn away thousands of hopeful spectators, leading The Michigan Alumnus, the Alumni Association newsletter, to wonder about a replacement.
“We shall soon need a stadium like the one at Harvard,” they wrote in a 1905 editorial.
After Yost became Athletic Director in 1921, he shared plans for a successor to Ferry Field that could act as the permanent home of Michigan football. He imagined that the Athletic Department would profit and that revenue would help create facilities for all University students.
In a 1922 issue of The Michigan Alumnus, Yost wrote that “good years financially have put athletics on a sound basis” for new stadiums elsewhere, and the editors of the publication were enthused about the Athletic Director’s vision.
“We believe in the new University stadium,” they wrote. “They are designed, in fact, to pay for themselves.”
But the Board of Regents disagreed and rejected Yost’s idea.
A committee appointed by interim President Alfred H. Lloyd in 1925 detailed why University administrators were ambivalent about upgrading the football facilities. Unlike Yost, who thought that athletics taught valuable lessons in character, the committee warned that sports distracted from academics.
“Intercollegiate athletics, notably football, have been so largely developed, that other interests — athletic as well as scholarly — have fallen behind,” they detailed in the “Report on University Athletics” in January 1926. “Intercollegiate athletics appear to have grown out of all proportion to the importance of the purposes which they serve.”
But the five-man committee agreed that Ferry Field was unsatisfactory and unsafe, and urged the commencement of a new stadium.
Yost had his approval but needed funding, so he headed Michigan’s original seat donation program. In exchange for purchasing a $500 bond at 3-percent interest, interested alumni and residents of the state could buy season tickets between the 30-yard lines.
After significant prodding, enough people invested, and in 1927, Michigan Stadium hosted its first game. The Wolverines finished 3-2 in the Big Ten that year, but Yost boasted publicly about the earnings.
“So far as I can see the dollars of football are providing funds for plant and equipment to all the non-football competitive teams … and also are providing opportunity for all members of the student body,” he wrote in a commentary titled “Football Profits Defended” to the Associated Press on Dec. 9, 1927. “If this is commercialism in sport — if this is high finance in football — I am glad to be numbered among those who have some part in its development.”
Yost envisioned Michigan Stadium as a necessary solution to a growing sport, but he also understood it as a money-making tool. For instance, he erected temporary wooden bleachers to increase capacity for the dedication game against Ohio State, and he charged more for important contests.
Two years later, he organized the first of three doubleheaders.
Under Yost and his successors, Michigan became a place replete with tradition, but it also rarely shied away from the cutting edge.
In 1930, Yost implemented in Michigan Stadium the first electronic scoreboard used to keep official time at football games. In the late 1960s, then-Athletic Director Don Canham began slapping the block ‘M’ on merchandise in a successful effort to expand Michigan’s brand. In 2011, the Big House toppled an attendance record hosting its first official night game.
And in 2014, it will welcome Real Madrid and Manchester United during the International Champions Cup.
Yost knew Michigan football and Michigan Stadium would sell, and he used the resulting profits to his advantage. His vision resulted in the Intramural Sports Building (opened in 1928) and the Michigan Golf Course (1931).
More than a half-century later, the Athletic Department will again maximize revenue from Yost’s Big House, this time leveraging International Champions Cup earnings to provide academic scholarships for students and fund improvements to the Wolverines’ soccer facilities.
The rest will help the Athletic Department record a 13th consecutive year with a surplus.
That’s commercialism in sport, and Yost would be proud to have made his contribution.