There’s a line between a fan-friendly game and too many marketing gimmicks, and the Michigan Athletic Department has flirted with it before.

Clif Reeder/Daily
Fans watch the Michigan Spring Game on April 11, 2009.

Basketball promotions this year included free pizza and ticket packages that practically begged students to go to games in order to earn Michigan merchandise at the end of the season. Even the media was treated to an exclusive preseason hands-on practice with coach John Beilein at Crisler Arena.

It seemed like the team and the Athletic Department were trying to compensate for the previous year’s 10-22 record by drawing attention to everything except the team’s past. But it just came off as tacky, and the fans only started to respond noticeably when the Wolverines started to win.

Before Saturday’s football spring game, it looked like the Athletic Department might be at it again. All it took was an offhand comment by Rodriguez three weeks ago about how he’d like to see more people at the spring game, and all of a sudden, the press releases started rolling. See the inside of the Michigan football locker room! Kick field goals to win textbook money!

Forget about last year’s 3-9 season!

But this time, the publicity blitz worked — and it’ll be a shame if this hyped-up edition of the spring game doesn’t become a tradition.

The whole day was a little surreal. Rodriguez set his goal at 40,000 attendees — chosen arbitrarily, I learned from an Athletic Department spokesperson later — and I thought there was absolutely no way that many people would come to a spring game.

But after arriving at Michigan Stadium shortly after the locker room tours opened at 8:00 a.m., I walked up the tunnel and saw the line. It took 15 minutes to walk to the end. It wove around Crisler Arena and down Stadium Blvd., curling back around Michigan Stadium and halfway down Main St.

At the beginning of the game, attendance was estimated at a little less than 40,000. After the first set of plays, Associate Athletic Director Bruce Madej walked by our seats in the press box.

“People are lined up outside. They’re still coming in,” he said, sounding sort of incredulous. The final attendance estimate was 50,000 — about 44,500 more than the estimated number at the last spring game under former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr.

It was refreshing to see the football program lighten up a little bit and change the closed-door policies that were so prevalent in the Carr era. Some might think promotions cheapen the experience. But during a watered-down scrimmage that was a prime opportunity for marketing ploys, the Wolverines executed them in a way that earned some desperately needed positive attention.

It wasn’t only from the fans. They got attention from alumni, who came back in droves. Thirty-eight former players were on the roster for the flag football game, and Steve Breaston, Mike Hart and Desmond Howard, among others, strolled around on the field. Even current Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Larry Foote took a break from his NFL conditioning to participate in the game with limited contact, contributing a one-handed touchdown to his new team.

They got attention from recruits — running back Stephen Hopkins, impressed by the spectacle, verbally committed right after the game.

“I’ve been to Texas A&M, Nebraska, Alabama, Texas, Texas Tech,” he told GoBlueWolverine.com after the game. “The atmosphere here at Michigan blew me out of the water.”

They got attention from incoming freshman quarterback Denard Robinson, who walked the sidelines in his high school varsity jacket. When asked how he liked the atmosphere, he looked around at the fans on both sides of the stadium, nodded and smiled — and didn’t stop. It took a few seconds for him to answer.

“It’s good, it’s good. It’s got me speechless — I don’t really know what to say,” he finally said, looking genuinely overwhelmed.

Saturday’s game showed that despite people complaining that Michigan is losing all its traditions, the core of the program is still there. Alums are still invested in the program. The rows of recruits watching from the stands, the vast majority from in-state, showed they aren’t all running to East Lansing because they feel ignored by Rodriguez. The incoming freshmen and new players are still just as awestruck by Michigan Stadium as they were under Carr.

And when you mix the classic elements of Michigan football with a little bit of new tradition, the fans will stop whining that the old way is the only way.

“It’s nice to have a positive record, for once,” Rodriguez joked, referring to the Michigan spring game attendance record set Saturday. “The fans were terrific – they really were.”

It’s true that this time, the gimmicks worked. But here’s hoping that like the basketball team, the on-the-field football show starts to speak for itself soon.

– Ratkowiak can be reached at cratkowi@umich.edu.

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