Long a heralded symbol of the tradition, excellence and character that the University itself stands for, Michigan Stadium might be scarcely recognizable by 2010 if a plan approved by the University Board of Regents last Friday goes forward. To offer wealthy Wolverines the option of luxury boxes or club seating, the Big House will likely be dominated by two massive structures – which may rise higher than the current scoreboards – running the full length of both sidelines. Besides dividing fans who have long shared a common experience at Michigan football games, the renovation plan is detrimental to students and the vast majority of season-ticket holders who are unable to afford the most exclusive seats. The regents will still need to approve specific plans for the renovation; they can still act to preserve the integrity of Michigan’s traditional bowl stadium and safeguard the experience of all fans.
Critics of what Athletic Director Bill Martin likes to call “enclosed seating,” better known as luxury boxes, have argued that dividing fans by income will inevitably go against the egalitarian values of this public institution. That, admittedly, might not be a terribly compelling argument to the average fan. But we’re willing to bet that the average fan enjoys having a bleacher seat in the sun on a crisp October afternoon. The plans the regents approved will make getting that seat more difficult.
According to plans obtained by The Ann Arbor News, the proposal the regents approved Friday would construct two structures rising 82 feet high along the sidelines – leaving many fans literally in the shadow of the wealthy. Though the plan would add slightly to the stadium’s overall seating capacity, there will be 4,300 fewer bleacher seats. That’s not in the interest of students or of the thousands of fans on a years-long waiting list for tickets. It’s hard to see how future seating additions could possibly be accommodated around gargantuan sideline structures.
To be fair, administrators – including Martin – deserve praise for remaining staunch in their opposition to allowing advertising in Michigan Stadium. And the luxury-box plan will include needed renovations to add restrooms, concessions, seats for disabled fans and other improvements.
But those same necessary upgrades were included in a more modest proposal, favored by Regent Larry Deitch. That plan, which would not add luxury boxes, would have made the stadium safer and more accessible without drastically and permanently departing from tradition. And given the challenges many other colleges with luxury boxes have faced in selling all their suites, the rosy financial projections of millions in luxury box revenue may not come to pass – especially if University President Mary Sue Coleman intends to stick by her commitment not to allow alcohol in any part of Michigan Stadium. All told, it’s difficult to see why the plan Deitch favored wasn’t given the more serious consideration it deserved.
Indeed, much about the decision last Friday was questionable. The Athletic Department only shared its plans with the Ann Arbor News when faced with a Freedom of Information Act request. More troublingly, stadium renovations did not appear on the agenda for Friday’s regent meeting until the day before – after the 9 a.m. deadline for concerned citizens to register to speak during the public comment section of the regents meeting.
There has been an outpour of concern over a historic departure from the tradition of the one structure that figures most prominently in the memories of many alumni. Between the secrecy over the plans and the devious move to put luxury boxes on the agenda at the last minute, the University appears determined to ignore public concerns about the renovations. It would do well to listen more closely as it finalizes plans for the stadium.