There is nothing like a fall afternoon at the Big House. A football game, a great band, discerning fans and lots of excitement. About 110,168  fans on a regular basis, not counting the vast TV audiences, couldn’t be wrong.

But there is another storyline here. College football has become much bigger than the universities it actually purports to represent. Michigan football is branded on the sweats and tees and mugs of every Wal-Mart in the country. People recognize “Hail to the Victors” when they hear it, and if they watch national sports, they’ll recognize the distinctive helmets. Michigan alumni clubs propose “game-watching” events in a sports bar setting as their major activity. Young recruits squint as spotlights feature their signing day on national broadcasts. And most notably, the Michigan coach has become what is needed today to get your brand out there in cyberspace — headline-making notoriety with nation-wide football camps and tweets that bring attention to his star status. He is remunerated seven times more than his ostensible supervisor, the president of the University of Michigan. 

No one should be naive. Making money is what makes major college football today. As media look for more events to broadcast and pushes colleges to grasp the golden ring, money becomes ever more important. Go to a game and you will see it all — replete with long, scheduled delays on the field so that TV can get in ads. Tickets are legally scalped online while the little guy trying to make $20 on State Street is prohibited from doing so. Food sales are huge because you can’t bring your own popcorn in with you. The band, likely for the media, is now amplified — that is to say, our band, not the visiting team’s. It is only a matter of time before the University permits more overt advertising on scoreboards and even in the naming of the stadium. How about the Ajax Widget Michigan Stadium?

This is our free-market system, but whether many universities can perpetuate this business model in the future is anyone’s guess. Let’s make some changes so that football can flourish.

First, since college football is big-time entertainment, pay the actors. Though he expresses his gratitude for his education and opportunities, as Jake Butt said in a press interview at the end of March, his scholarship is hardly enough to cover his rent, let alone any other expenses. And only a small elite later translate their athletic prowess into a paycheck at the professional level. Some of us might be surprised at how much these young people sacrifice, including their university education, because their focus on a long season, and not on their studies, makes academic achievement an unattainable goal. When you see the heroic plays they make and the injuries they sustain, they need recompense. It would be the honorable thing to do.

If players wished to matriculate at the University, they could compete on an equal basis with the kids who populate the student section at the games. And by the way, a few years ago it was the students, not anyone else, who protested when an obviously injured player was not immediately pulled out of the game, and when the cost of their attending a game reached new heights. All that for someone else’s pocket, to the exclusion of students and players.

Second, create the Michigan Football Corporation. That could readily accept funds from alumni, unabashedly sell its brand and raise the money needed to keep it all going. A corporation, most simply, could be located in Ann Arbor and lease and maintain the stadium and its blandishments. The corporation could apply its rents and royalties to bringing more deserving cash-short students to the University campus. The team could serve as a farm team, as in baseball, or in European soccer, training and selecting the next generation of stars for the big time.

Such a model would avoid the unnecessary conflicts inherent in marrying a huge business to a university. It would eliminate the seeming contradictions of educating young people versus running a quality business. It would insulate the University from the vagaries of the sports market, which increasingly relies on huge budgets. If you’ve been to a bowl game or a regular season match at a number of our less football-focused sister universities, you’ll note that the market for watching games is nearing its saturation point.

The University of Michigan is a great university and its maize-and-blue Wolverines are world famous. Let’s provide them the space to grow.

Douglas McElhaney is an LSA alum in the class of 1968 and the American ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2004 to 2007. 

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