An Athletic Department program partially intended to raise money for the proposed renovations to Michigan Stadium may inadvertently deter ticket holders from donating to the University’s academic programs, critics of the program say.

The preferred seating program, which started this year, requires football season ticket holders to donate between $125 and $500 to the Athletic Department for the right to purchase season tickets.

But because the program requires donations to the Athletic Department, some worry that prospective ticket holders who might otherwise give to the University’s academic programs will donate only to athletics. Donations to the University, including athletics, are refundable up to $100 on state taxes.

Gifts to the Athletic Department do not benefit the University’s academic side because the two have separate budgets.

“Most people have limited resources,” said Laurie Styron, an analyst at the American Institute of Philanthropy. “So when they’re making giving decisions, often times they are choosing among many causes that are important to them. It’s quite possible that they will view this as their charitable donation for the year.”

University President Mary Sue Coleman and Vice President for Development Jerry May both said academic donations have not been affected by the program, pointing out that academic donations this year are at an all-time high. May, who worked for Ohio State when it implemented a seat license program, said there was no decrease in academic donations after the Athletic Department in Columbus implemented the required donation.

“The data I’ve seen don’t give me any indication that is the case,” Coleman said. “It’s an important question to ask, and it’s something to monitor.”

But former University President James Duderstadt, a critic of the commercialization of college athletics, said Coleman should be concerned. According to Duderstadt, a loss in donations may not be immediately obvious – or even noticeable – in the big picture of the University’s academic donations, but losing any donors could potentially hurt the University in the future. It is important to get young donors into the habit of giving to academics, he said.

Although much of the University’s academic fundraising comes from large donations, Duderstadt said one reason small donors are valuable is because they sometimes donate large sums when they are older. Judy Malcolm, director of communications and donor relations for the University’s development office, said 84 percent of people who donate to the University donate $500 or less and 94 percent of donors give less than $1,000. Under the preferred seating program, ticket holders are expected to make donations that are close to these figures.

Under the new program, people sitting in the best areas of Michigan Stadium are required to make a donation every year for the right to buy their seats. The fee varies from $500 for a seat on the 50-yard line to $125 for seats closer to the goal lines. Student tickets are not affected, and neither are seats behind the end zones – although new season ticket holders in the end zone will be required to make a $50 donation in order to retain their tickets.

According to the Athletic Department, the preferred seating program affects approximately 31 percent of seats in Michigan Stadium and about 45 percent of season ticket holders.

Duderstadt called the program “extortion” because it requires people to pay for something – the right to buy tickets – that would normally be free.

The program is being phased in over a two-year period, so this year season ticket holders were only required to pay half the normal fee.

Six percent of football season ticket holders did not renew their tickets this year. Usually, the number of people who give up their seats is closer to one or two percent, said Joseph Parker, associate athletic director for development. Parker said a little fewer than 900 people said they couldn’t afford the new fee but would like to move to seats that did not require a fee.

“When you look at what has happened at other schools (when they implemented similar programs), we were pleased that so many people decided to stick with us and support Michigan football,” Parker said about people giving up their seats.

In addition to the preferred seating program, the Athletic Department this year made a one-time offer to season ticket holders to transfer their tickets to someone else for a fee of $500. Season tickets are normally non-transferable. The Athletic Department had 12,000 seat transfers this year – throughout the stadium, not just in the sections with the fee from the preferred seating program. The transfer program brought in $6 million, but Duderstadt expressed concern that corporations, and not Michigan fans and alumni, will own the majority of seats in Michigan Stadium.

Prof. Jens Zorn and his wife have taught at the University for more than 30 years – and they have had four season tickets since they arrived. Zorn said he and his wife paid the fee this year, but they do not plan on paying it next year, when he estimates the cost will rise to $150 per person per game – more than twice what it is now – for an afternoon of watching Michigan football.

“This price is well beyond what most of us could regard as reasonable cost for family entertainment,” Zorn said. “It seems clear that the best seats in the Michigan Stadium will increasingly be populated by persons for whom cost does not really matter.”

Many other schools around the country – including Big Ten rivals Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin – have implemented a required donation for the best seats in their football stadiums. At Michigan State, it is called the “scholarship seating” program because the money generated is used for scholarships, and the fee ranges from $200 to $500.

Brian Long, a former president of the University’s alumni association chapter in Milwaukee, is opposed to the seat licenses because it divides the fans between the wealthy and non-wealthy. He said that when it implemented the preferred seating program, the Athletic Department justified it partially by saying other universities had similar programs, but that this argument left him unconvinced.

“I think Michigan has always prided itself on being a leader rather than a follower,” said Long, who donates $100 each year to the University’s academic side.

At the same time it implemented the required donation, the Athletic Department changed the way it organized the waiting list for tickets. It used to be based on the number of years a person had been waiting for tickets, but now the Athletic Department uses a priority point system that considers other factors such as whether a person graduated from Michigan, whether he played a varsity sport, whether he has season tickets for other sports and donations to both the Athletic Department and the University.

“We just decided that there’s probably a better representation of a person’s relationship with the University and the department,” Parker said.

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