When University President Mark Schlissel ran into Michigan Stadium minutes before the football team’s season opener, he entered a world beyond the sport. He entered a world of tradition, history and more than a few numbers.
With the usual crowd of well over 100,000 fans cheering in the largest stadium in college football, the atmosphere was overwhelming — and it should be. After all, students paid about $40 per game for their seats — a fee that ranked as the second highest in college football last year, just behind the University of Oregon. And for the rest of the crowd, the expense was larger, starting at $70 for less notable home games, like the contest with the University of Maryland.
Working with numbers is a familiar task for Schlissel. Before becoming the University’s 14th president, he served as Brown University’s provost — a role focused on the academic and budgetary planning for the University. His previous experience with athletics, however, does not compare to the role that athletics currently plays at the University. Though Brown University has 37 Division I varsity sports teams within its department, it is in the Ivy League — which is no Big 10. Football tickets are a mere $15 per game for non-students, and funding for the program comes as its own budget offered from the Office of Student Life at Brown which works under a centralized funding model.
For Schlissel, the numbers at the University of Michigan are just bigger. Though his transition comes with many hurdles, taking hold of the Athletic Department is a significant one. To those outside of academia and the alumni pool, the University is perhaps best known for its Athletic Department. Instead of building the athletics brand to follow its exponential upward trend, Schlissel has said he wants a balance between athletics and academics in University life — a value the University has held since its inception.
“What I want to be sure of is that athletics exist in an appropriate balance with everything else the University does,” Schlissel said in a July press conference. “Athletics isn’t part of the mission statement of the University. We’re an academic institution, so I want to work on the appropriate balance between athletics and academics.”
For Schlissel, however, the Athletic Department influence is not slowing down anytime soon — the numbers will only keep growing.
Big House bucks
It’s easy to assess the University’s athletic reputation based on its successful programs. The University’s football team has the most wins in college football — though a 2-2 win-loss ratio for the first four games of the 2014 season weakens that status in the modern context.
But even as the winning percentage falls, the Athletic Department’s revenue and expenditures are on the rise. During University Athletic Director Dave Brandon’s tenure, the department’s operating revenues have increased from $105 million in 2011 to $151 million in 2015 — which excludes the approximate $350 million budgeted for infrastructure and renovations at the Stephen M. Ross Athletic Campus. At Brown University, the school’s athletics program worked with a budget of $11 million in 2013.
In comparison with a 43.8 percent increase over the past four years, the Athletic Department’s revenue is now more than half of what the state of Michigan appropriated to the University last year — $295 million.
Former University President Mary Sue Coleman recommended Brandon’s hiring and highlighted athletes as a way to celebrate the University’s achievements as a whole. When Schlissel was appointed last January, Brandon said he admired Coleman’s work, and anticipated Schlissel to share the same spirit.
“President Coleman has been engaged and helpful and been a pattern of Michigan Athletics — loves and respects the role it plays on campus,” Brandon said. “And I’m sure the new president will have the same point of view.”
Athletics remain an integral part of the University of Michigan experience. With the recent 2013 Final Four appearance by the Michigan men’s basketball team and Nov. 2013 football win against Michigan State in the Big House, the celebration of sport and camaraderie is a defining moment in a University alum’s remembrance of college.
“I think every individual here is an expert in athletics, which is incredible,” Schlissel said in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “It’s something that people pay great attention to; it’s a part of the culture. I couldn’t change that even if I wanted to.”
And Schlissel’s not the only one to think that athletics are a huge part of the campus culture. University Lecturer John Bacon, a prominent sports journalist and author, said the Michigan athletics experience should be an organic one which transcends the boundaries usually presented between students who may be separated by age, socioeconomic class, race or ethnicity.
“It’s the one time of the year when none of that matters, where the second you walk past the turnstile, all of it breaks down,” Bacon said. “If you know when to jam your fist into the air and sing ‘Hail,’ then you’re one of us. And we’re all connected and we all belong.”
Sure, the atmosphere is invigorating. As soon as that cowbell rings, thousands of students clap and cheer with chants of “Go Blue” without any external instruction. And, of course, there’s the student-led wave that captures every person sitting in the Big House. But the recent dwindling attendance paints a different picture of the game-day experience.
This year, with what Bacon called the “worst home schedule in Michigan football history,” the Athletic Department sold 8,000 fewer student ticket packages for Michigan football — a 40 percent decrease from last season. The prices for each home game remained about $40 per game, but something caused this large drop.
After scrapping the General Admission ticketing policy last year, Brandon worked with the Central Student Government to create a better ticketing option for students. Together, the Athletic Department and CSG created a new loyalty-based ticketing program, which bases ticket group placement by its previous attendance record, thus prioritizing the most loyal fans.
Though students have voiced positive reviews of the new program after several home games, the process of resolving the issues between the Athletic Department and the student body is still underway.
In a meeting with CSG in April, Brandon expressed little concern for the prices of student tickets. When asked how students who can’t afford the $40-per-game fee can still attend games, he suggested the common practice of buying a season ticket holder’s ticket off of them for the game.
Despite consistent questioning at the meeting, Brandon told CSG he was thankful for their collaboration.
“We’re not perfect, but our intentions are good,” Brandon said in April.
For the football game against Miami University Sept. 13, 102,824 fans attended the game. Though it upheld the University’s longstanding streak of holding over 100,000 fans, the crowd fell well below a typical football game day. The next weekend’s game versus Utah drew 103,890.
Bacon said the biggest issue is not the shortage of fans — since the decreased attendance was expected due to what was expected to be an underwhelming game — but of what the implications of Athletic Department policies will have in the future. As ticket prices rise and home schedules become less desirable, the outcome for the future may not be as promising.
“(The Athletic Department) needs to finally realize that we can’t charge steakhouse prices for fast food schedules,” Bacon said. “The bigger issue is not just this season or next season, but what happens in 20 years when your student tickets have basically cut in half — the number of student holders. If you’re not a happy 20 year old with the department, you’re not going to be a happy 40 year old who’s going to want to buy a very expensive sky box. So, that’s what the real problem is: they’re killing the future with the present.”
From Brown to Blue
As Schlissel takes the reins of the University and its Athletic Department, his experience with athletics comes from a much smaller venue.
Before Schlissel became Brown’s provost, a project aimed to cut funding from their athletics program began. Under former Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons, who visited the University Sept. 5 for Schlissel’s inauguration, Brown administrators created an Athletics Review Committee to assess the role athletics played on campus, along with what areas of the program to cut due to dwindling funding.
Athletics was the focus of one of 12 groups formed to assess how to increase Brown’s revenues and cut its expenditures. With the overall goal of saving $60 million after the 2008, the athletics committee contributed $1 million worth of savings toward that sum. The subcommittee cut this goal to $300,000 after experiencing difficulty in decreasing the program’s expenditures by that much.
Instead, the athletics subcommittee created a plan to over time provide a larger budget to some athletic units by cutting several teams and programs offered within the department.
Though creating plan came with many hurdles, the subcommittee reiterated Brown’s goal for athletics on campus, the report read.
Margaret Klawunn, Brown’s vice president for campus life and student services, works closely with Brown’s athletic department. In a statement, Klawunn said the Ivy League’s overall goal is to find that balance between academics and athletics.
“A lot of the Ivy League regulation is intended to insure that our students can excel in academics and in competition,” Klawunn wrote. “It is very important that our students excel in both areas.”
Klawunn added that Brown’s athletics do not attract similar audiences to those at Michigan sporting events, given the smaller size of the school’s student body and the reputation of the Ivy League’s sports division in general. Schlissel said during his three years at Brown, the sum total of ticket sales for athletics events probably did not amount to that of one game in the Big House.
As Provost, Schlissel oversaw all of Brown’s budgeting, which includes athletics. At the University of Michigan, University Provost Martha Pollack does not oversee funding for athletics. Instead, Jason Winters, the Athletic Department’s chief financial officer, oversees funding and reports to Brandon, who in turn reports to the University’s governing Board of Regents and the University President. As Schlissel noted, the Athletics Department at the University is entirely self-supporting — which is not a common funding model when compared to nearly every other national university.
By the numbers, Brown has 900 student-athletes involved in 31 varsity sports. In comparison, the University has 29 varsity sports with 931 students. Though the percentage of student-athletes overall is technically larger at Brown, the University’s budget is larger. But that distinction, however, comes with the University’s monumental athletic history.
Sport and the University
It’s clear that both athletics and academics are identifiable, historic aspects of the University. In order to examine their relationship to each other, this year’s LSA Theme Semester was created.
Each term, LSA creates a Theme Semester to provide a more focused group of classes to offer to its students. This fall, the theme is “Sport and the University.”
English Prof. Anne Curzan, who serves as the faculty liaison to the Athletic Department, is one of the leaders and organizers of the theme semester. The idea stemmed from a committee a few years ago aimed to identify ways to increase courses offered at the University relating to sport and physical activity. Curzan, who was part of this committee, said creating a theme semester was the best way to do it — and potentially launch more courses offered like this in the future.
“We decided it would be really fun to sponsor a theme semester on sport and the university to highlight all these intersections — and to see what departments would come up with related to the theme,” Curzan wrote in a statement. “And it has been exciting to see the range of events and topics that have come together around this theme.”
Physics Prof. David Gerdes, who works with Curzan as co-leader of the theme semester, said the courses in the theme semester encompass a myriad of aspects of the complexity of sports: ranging from the physics of baseball to the history of college football.
The Athletic Department will sponsor several events produced by the theme semester. For the program’s kickoff, a panel titled “Game Plan: Achieving Success at Michigan and Beyond” was comprised of several distinguished professors and accomplished coaches, including Men’s Basketball Coach John Beilein. The panel discussed how students can reach their goals, whether they be in sports, academics or any other field.
Curzan said the theme semester aims to encourage students and faculty to take a closer look at how these two monumental parts of the University of Michigan experience interact.
“At Michigan, you find passion for academics and passion for athletics,” she said. “And we don’t think that we need to see athletics and academics as inherently or necessarily at odds with each other.”
For Schlissel, finding a balance between athletics and academics and forming an understanding between the two is vital. Though the numbers may be bigger for Schlissel, he aims to ensure the Athletic Department upholds one value: integrity.
Since Brandon reports directly to him, Schlissel said they have meetings every other week to ensure their communication runs smoothly. University Athletic Department spokesman Dave Ablauf described their partnership as “a good working relationship,” adding that they have met several times for dinner in addition to their regularly scheduled meetings.
To get a better grasp of the department, Schlissel is aiming to attend at least one event every year for each varsity sport the department offers. This goal will allow Schlissel to interact with what he calls the most important part of the department: the student-athletes.
“I want to make sure the student-athletes get benefits from their program,” Schlissel said. “I want to make sure our athletics program operates with unquestioned integrity, with a focus on the athletes and the experience the student-athletes are having.”
Athletics will remain a landmark to the University experience. As Schlissel continues to adjust to his new leadership role, his exact approach to working with the Athletic Department will come through. Until then, the department’s numbers will keep growing.