Apparently, the soul of Michigan athletics is not for sale, at
least not for the price SBC offered.

Officials from both Michigan and the Ohio State University
decided against allowing SBC to sponsor the annual football matchup
between the two schools and lend its name to the game.

“We were excited about the positive impact the agreement
would have on the Department of Athletics, the University and the
community” OSU athletic director Andy Geiger said in a
written statement. “But as we attempted to move forward, it
became apparent that this agreement could detract from the great
tradition of the game itself.”

Michigan athletic director Bill Martin said the main point of
contention between the two schools and SBC was the addition of a
titled sponsorship. SBC, a regional telecommunications company,
wanted to call the game “The SBC Michigan-Ohio State
Classic” for the next two years. Each school was slated to
receive over $500,000 dollars for the two contests.

“The bottom line was that we simply weren’t able to
work out the deal on all the points as a part of it,” Martin
said.

SBC is a long-term corporate sponsor of both Michigan and Ohio
State. It also already sponsors two college football games —
“The SBC Red River Shootout” between Oklahoma and Texas
and “The SBC Cotton Bowl Classic.”

Michigan has never been against corporate sponsorship in
general. It has a well-publicized relationship with Nike that
supplies athletic teams with uniforms and apparel. Last year,
Michigan received $5.1 million from corporate sponsorship alone,
enough to support nine non-revenue sports. But those close to the
athletic programs were concerned about letting a sponsor take such
a prominent role in perhaps the biggest rivalry in all of
sports.

A first statement was released Monday stating that the
universities and the telecommunications company were close to a
deal. According to Martin, SBC wanted to move ahead on marketing
details of the contract.

The University Board of Regents and University President Mary
Sue Coleman first learned of the proposed details of the contract
when the original statement was released. After discussions with
Coleman and other officials, the athletic department decided to
back out before the deal was finalized.

“If the fault for this lies any place, it lies with
me,” Martin said. “I didn’t focus enough on the
titled sponsorship. I didn’t recognize that and sit down and
discuss that with Mary Sue, and that’s why it came up
late.”

After the initial announcement, the respective athletic
departments were showered with complaints from media and fans
alike, questioning whether the sponsorship would hurt the tradition
and aura that surrounds the game.

“The Big House is called Michigan Stadium,” LSA
junior Nick Benson said. “It doesn’t have a corporate
name attached to it and that’s how we need to keep the game.
It’s pure football. It’s the greatest rivalry in
sports, and corporate sponsorship would just really take away from
what’s going on down on the field.”

The inside of Michigan Stadium is one of the few major Division
I stadiums that is free of advertising. Martin said the possibility
of upsetting that traditional game-watching environment bothered
many fans.

“Many of (the complaints) were talking about as much as
anything ‘Don’t mess with Michigan Stadium’ in
terms of advertising — which we weren’t doing
anyway,” Martin said.

The Nov. 22 meeting between the Wolverines and the Buckeyes
takes place in Columbus this year, and Michigan is currently tied
for first place with Wisconsin in the Big Ten standings. If
Michigan gets past Michigan State this weekend and Northwestern on
Nov. 13, the game against Ohio State will help decide a Big Ten
title again, something which “the game” features very
often.

“If people want to make money off this game, that’s
going to happen,” Benson said. “But attaching some name
to it just completely takes away from what’s going
on.”

 

Daily staff reporter Donn Fresard contributed to this
report.

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