It’s been a decade now since the University of Michigan basketball team last went to the NCAA tournament, and the Athletic Department faces a conundrum: how do you promote a team that hasn’t achieved significant success since its fans were in grade school?
Faced with dwindling student ticket sales and dwindling attendance at the aging Crisler Arena, the Athletic Department has offered promotional student ticket packages at a discounted price, given free admission to most games for any student with an MCard and revamped the arena’s facilities and atmosphere in an effort to draw students in.
And yet, it has sold 480 student season tickets this season, down from about 600 last year. The regular season’s first two games, against Michigan Tech and Northeastern, drew just over 6,000 people each, leaving more than half of Crisler Arena’s 13,751 seats empty.
The Athletic Department hasn’t always had this challenge.
Fifteen years ago, fans filled Crisler Arena to watch the Michigan basketball team’s Fab Five play. Led by Chris Webber, the team went to the Final Four of the 1992 and 1993 NCAA Tournaments. The year after their second Final Four appearance, the Athletic Department received 4,100 applications for 3,100 student season tickets.
And then an investigation revealed that team booster Ed Martin had given money to four Michigan players, including Webber. The team lost scholarships and the ability to play in the NCAA Tournament. The two Final Four banners from the Fab Five era came down from Crisler Arena’s rafters.
Ever since, enthusiasm for the Michigan men’s basketball team has dwindled. Former coach Tommy Amaker couldn’t lead Michigan to an NCAA Tournament in six years. The team went 10-22 last season under new coach John Beilein.
This season, the Athletic Department is banking on an improved basketball team. Michigan has won its first three games this season, including an exhibition victory over Saginaw Valley State and regular-season wins against Michigan Tech and Northeastern.
Marty Bodnar, associate athletic director of ticketing and marketing, said the Athletic Department expects a turnaround in support if the Michigan team can return to its winning pre-scandal ways.
LSA junior Eric Ralph, who attended Tuesday night’s game against Northeastern, agreed.
“They have to get the fans to believe again,” he said.
For the upcoming season, students with valid MCards will be able to attend 12 basketball games for free, though this doesn’t include Michigan’s games against Duke, Ohio State and Michigan State. Already, students could’ve attended last week’s exhibition game with Saginaw Valley State, Tuesday night’s season-opener against Michigan Tech and last night’s game against Northeastern for free.
The Athletic Department plans to use the MCard information from students who attended the free games to market basketball-related offers and ticket deals. Athletic Department spokesman Bruce Madej said Athletic Department officials are trying many plans to increase attendance, with mixed results.
“Some things will be good, some things won’t succeed,” he said.
Among those efforts have been attempts to make the atmosphere of notoriously cavernous Crisler Arena more upbeat. During the off-season, the department invested $1.25 million in upgrading the light and sound systems there, Madej said. The size of the pep band has also been doubled from 35 members to 70 this season in an attempt to increase the noise level in the often-hushed arena.
“Students and fans will continue to see changes in the arena to improve the atmosphere,” Madej said.
Complaints about the atmosphere of Crisler Arena have become common among students, with several citing that factor — and not necessarily the team’s performance — as their main reason for not going to games.
“Crisler doesn’t make you want to spend time there, especially when the team isn’t playing well,” said Zack Burwell, an LSA senior who has held season tickets since he was a sophomore.
After years of mediocrity, students said they are looking ahead to the team’s second year under head coach John Beilein. Still, they’re cautiously optimistic about the future of the program.
Athletic Department officials said the goal is not just to fill Crisler Arena, but also to energize the next generation of University students about Michigan basketball. Madej said busy students have found fewer incentives to make the trip to Crisler because “each game isn’t as important as it used to be.”
Despite these obstacles, Athletic Department officials remain optimistic about the basketball program and student attendance at games, and have more plans in the works for future ticket specials. Bus service will soon be offered from dorms and Greek houses directly to Crisler Arena, eliminating the long, cold walk to and from games.
“The key,” Bodnar said, “is to try to make it fun for everyone.”