Tomorrow marks the 104th meeting between Michigan and Ohio State. A lot has changed at Michigan Stadium and in college football since that first matchup in 1897, and not all of these changes have been for the better. On the field and off, college football is becoming increasingly commercialized, with a larger emphasis on which team can capture the biggest profits, the most attention and the finest recruits, and it’s threatening to diminish Michigan tradition and values.
Although it may be hard to believe, three years ago, the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry almost got a corporate makeover. Offering the schools $1.6 million over two years, telecommunications giant SBC proposed to buy the rights to America’s greatest rivalry and rename it the SBC Michigan-Ohio State Classic. Only weeks before the game, the schools backed out of the sponsorship after an outcry from fans.
As this season has shown us, the battle is not over. The University is playing more than just a game of football, with more than just a bowl game at stake – even if this year that game is the Rose Bowl Game presented by Citi.
There is no better example of the commercialization of college sports than the ongoing clash between the Big Ten Network and Comcast. While the game is supposed to be about the fans, the players and the universities, the Big Ten has made the sport about the money. Now, the lust for money has kept many fans from watching the game each Saturday, even right here in Ann Arbor.
With this same focus on the bottom line, the University made another hasty decision this summer, entering into a questionable apparel contract with Adidas. Instead of proactively examining Adidas’s labor methods before signing the contract, the Athletic Department jumped at the cash, and it could come back to haunt it: With universities like the University of Wisconsin at Madison reconsidering their contracts with Adidas because of alleged labor violations, the University is already in a compromising position.
Symbolically, the proposed renovations to the Big House stand as the largest testament to college football’s transformation. Setting aside all of the problems with the stadium’s accessibility and the lack of transparency in its decision making, the University is set to begin construction on the skyboxes for the Big House at the end of the season. When the skyboxes go up, the Big House’s tradition of egalitarian bench seating will be destroyed as some Michigan fans sit comfortably in their enclosed, air-conditioned luxury suites.
University leaders often say that they have no choice in the matter: Times change, and this is just the way it is. But, the pull of commercialization is not new: it is the leadership that has changed. It is a leadership yielding to lucrative opportunities selling off the integrity of the game piece by piece to the highest bidder.
Every facet of college football – the season tickets, the advertising, the TV contracts and the apparel sales – are akin to professional football. Despite all of those signs of blatant profiteering, the University hides behind the ideal of the amateur nature of college sports every time it finds it convenient to do so – namely when it comes to the question of paying athletes.
Multi-thousand dollar seat premiums, enforced monopolies on who gets to sell pizza in the stadium and a $226 million stadium-renovation project that still won’t accommodate people in wheelchairs. On the eve of the biggest game on the year, we should all wonder: Is this what we envisioned for the hallowed Michigan brand?