In the spring of 2007, so many red-and-white-clad fans packed into Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium that some attendees had to sit on the steps or stand on tiptoes in section entrances to get a glimpse at the field.
It was Nick Saban’s first spring game in Tuscaloosa, and fans overflowed the stadium’s 92,138-person capacity to see it.
Selling out a spring game is a completely foreign idea at Michigan Stadium.
When I was a kid, my parents and I would wake up super early one Saturday each spring to make the three-hour drive to Ann Arbor for the spring game. It was one of my favorite weekends of the year — I remember snagging Anthony Thomas’s autograph and almost catching Sam Sword’s glove when he tossed it to a group of awestruck 10-year-olds.
I remember rooting for the blue team to beat the white team. Whichever squad won was rewarded with a steak dinner while the losers ate soggy hot dogs.
The Big House crowds weren’t exactly large, but that’s what I expected from spring games — maybe 15,000 fans crowding the lowest bleachers of the stadium.
But as I got older and passed the age where autograph hoarding was fun, I had much less of a desire to go. Watching the team go through a half hour of stretching followed by nothing more intense than pregame warmups didn’t really appeal to me.
Let’s face it. Michigan’s actual spring “game” — which is basically a stylized walk-through — is pretty boring. That’s why the stands aren’t filled here. But they are in other places.
Just look at some of these spring-game attendance numbers from last year:
Ohio State: 76,346.
Penn State: 73,000.
Hell, even Michigan State attracted 27,000 fans last season. Of all the spring games I’ve been to at Michigan, 27,000 would easily rank at the top of the attendance list. Other teams give their fans something to see — live action, real tackles. You know, football.
Rich Rodriguez is doing all he can to raise excitement around the game, adding an alumni flag football game, a locker room tour and other gimmicks to the festivities. He wants to see at least 40,000 fans show up. His eventual goal is to break Alabama’s attendance record, and if Rodriguez wants that, the on-the-field product in the spring must be enticing enough to keep fans coming every year.
And if the Athletic Department could convince 100,000 people to show up to the spring game every season, it could do a whole lot of good for the program. A packed house could impress recruits, convince boosters to donate more money and make fans feel more connected with the steep Michigan tradition. It’s a win-win scenario no matter how you look at it.
The hardest part will be getting fans to Michigan Stadium in the first place.
Lloyd Carr’s super-conservative approach to the spring game (the last one I went to was basically just a practice — they didn’t even keep score) gave Michigan fans a bad perception of the annual event, set for April 11 at noon this season.
And last season’s closed-to-the-public edition in Rodriguez’s first year turned off many of the remaining pro-spring game stragglers.
Although there’s always a huge revolt against change in Michigan tradition, the spring game needs to be something fans get excited about. All the elite programs around the country are consistently pulling in at least 50,000 fans. Why should the Wolverines be any different?
— Reid can be reached at email@example.com.