In a move many regarded as a mistake, the University Board of Regents approved a controversial expansion of the Big House last May. Unlike any previous expansion, the plan would actually remove bleacher seats, replacing them with club seats and luxury boxes. At the time, it was the only one of the proposed designs for necessary stadium renovations that received significant attention. But the Big House Plan, released last week by a group of University alumni, would accomplish all of the same renovations – and add 10,000 bleacher seats instead of the luxury superstructures. So far, the University has shown a troubling unwillingness to consider opposing views, effectively shutting out public comments on the plan at last Friday’s meeting. The stadium renovation is a project that will leave a resounding mark on Michigan football culture and the University, and the administration and the regents must seriously consider the Big House Plan – and give the public a chance to speak out – before making a final decision.
The Big House has embodied the tradition of Michigan football since it was completed in 1927. Each home game, more than a hundred thousand fans journey to that familiar sunken bowl to watch the Wolverines take on that week’s unlucky opponent. Each fan sits or stands on the same cold steel bleachers. Every one of them suffers through the often cruel Ann Arbor weather. Every one of them cheers in jubilation when the revered Maize and Blue score. There are no advertisements, no distractions – just fans and football. While the two proposed structures included in the skybox plan might not take away from the football program itself, they would severely disrupt the University’s football tradition.
Affront to tradition aside, the skybox plan has a number of flaws. Its estimated cost, including interest, is more than $200 million more than the Big House Plan. The skyboxes won’t necessarily sell out – especially if the University decides to keep them alcohol-free, as University President Mary Sue Coleman intends. The skyboxes would literally tower over the masses, leaving much of the stadium in shadow. Further, the plan jeopardizes the stadium’s standing as the largest in the nation. The boxes would hinder further expansion of the bowl, effectively locking capacity at just above 108,000.
Despite the obvious divisions with the Board of Regents and among alumni on the matter, opponents of the luxury box plan have had a hard time making their opinions heard. An apparent case of misinformation in July resulted in opponents of the skybox plan being all but shut out from the regents’ meeting Friday. Certainly, this could have been a simple mistake. However, mistakes, clerical oddities and other shady tactics have been the norm regarding this subject since the administrative sleight-of-hand that placed the stadium expansion plan on the agenda for the regents’ meeting in May at the last minute – after the deadline to register to speak had passed. If the fact that the skybox plan is still moving forward is disturbing, the administration’s unwillingness to hear opposing arguments is even more so.
The Athletic Department will say that many plans were considered, yet only the plan including luxury boxes could finance needed renovations without increasing ticket prices. This may have been the case among the alternate plans the department put forth, but as Save the Big House illustrated last week, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Viable alternatives for stadium expansion exist and need to be considered.
In the end, the Board of Regents should remember that Fielding Yost put extra steel pilings into the ground for a reason. It’s a safe bet that the reason wasn’t to allow for the future construction of “enclosed seating.”