Brandon vs. Bacon… the fight for the soul of University of Michigan football


Even when I was a young undergrad at the University of Michigan, I was never really a fan of the football team. I went to a few games and enjoyed them, but I never really bought into the notion that what happened on the field really mattered. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve gained a new appreciation for Michigan football. I still don’t really care what happens on the field, but I enjoy the behind-the-scenes politics. That, to me, is where the real game is. And I find it infinitely fascinating. I loved the epic battle that was the Rich Rodriguez era, and I’m anxiously waiting to see what happens next with current Head Coach Brady Hoke and Athletic Director David Brandon, the former CEO of Domino’s Pizza. My sense has been that Brandon might be able to protect himself, assuming the football team has yet another disappointing season, by throwing Hoke under the bus, but, having just read the most recent piece by sports columnist John U. Bacon, I’m not so sure. I realize that I may be reading too much into it, but I’m wondering if it’s possible that a coordinated movement may be afoot to hold Brandon accountable for all the fact that tickets aren’t selling the way they used to, to the point where the blimp has stopped showing overhead shots of an increasingly barren Big House.

Here’s a clip:

…Yes, the department has always followed business practices, but it has never been run strictly as a business – until now. The proof is the wait list, which former athletic director Don Canham grew to some 30,000 fans. If he wanted to “maximize revenue,” he would have increased the price to meet demand. But he didn’t, because he believed that would dispel the magic.

The wait list is long gone. Tickets used to be undervalued, and you knew that when you scalped them.

Now they’re overvalued, and you know that when you try to sell them through Michigan’s Official Scalper, Stubhub.

This fall Michigan might break its string of 100,000-plus crowds for the first time since 1975.

Treat your fans like customers, and they’ll behave that way, reducing their irrational love for their team to a cool-headed, dollars-and-cents decision to buy tickets, with all the emotion of buying new tires.

After a friend of mine took his kids to a game, he told me, “Michigan athletics used to feel like something we shared. Now it’s something they hoard. Anything of value they put a price tag on. And what’s been permanently banished is any sense of generosity.”

After Brandon became Michigan’s 11th athletic director in 2010, he often repeated one of his favorite philosophies: “If it ain’t broke, break it.”

You have to give him credit: he has delivered on his promise.

Upon first reading this, my initial thought was that Bacon, who has long been associated with the UM football program, having been the official biographer of legendary coach Bo Schembechler, must be privy to anti-Brandon rumblings. (Why else would he bite the hand that feeds him?) Now, though, after having reached out to a few people who follow this stuff more closely than I do, I’m not so sure. It seems as though there’s been bad blood between Bacon and Brandon since the publication of Bacon’s last book, Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football, which called into question the rampant commercialization of college football, and, among other things, suggested that our traditions at Michigan were being put in danger by those, like Brandon, who were seeking to maximize profits at all cost. (More ads, less marching band.) In fact, from what I hear now, Bacon had his media credentials withdrawn this past fall in an act of what appears to be retribution. So, now, it would seem, he’s ramping things up a bit, and taking the fight back to Brandon. One wonders if anyone will join him in his crusade to roll back time and take us back to a world where sports were about something more than money. My sense is that they will… unless, of course, Michigan begins to play well again.

Here’s more from Bacon:

Last week, Michigan Athletics admitted student football ticket sales are down —from about 21,000 two years ago to just 13,000 this fall…

Fans are fed up of paying steakhouse prices for junk food opponents, then sitting through ads for $9,000 corporate receptions at Michigan Stadium. The more they cater to TV, the more fans get turned off.

After the 2013 Notre Dame game, Brandon said, “You’re a 17 to 18-year-old kid watching the largest crowd in the history of college football with airplanes flying over and Beyonce introducing your halftime show? That’s a pretty powerful message about what Michigan is all about, and that’s our job to send that message.”

Is that really what Michigan is all about? Fly-overs, blaring rock music, and Beyonce? Beyonce is to Michigan football what Bo Schembechler is to – well, Beyonce.

No, Michigan is all about loyal fans who’ve been coming together for decades to leave a bit of the modern world behind – and the incessant marketing that comes with it – and share an authentic experience fueled by the passion of the team, the band and the students. That’s it…

When it’s all said and done, it’s about winning. If they’re winning, no one cares, regardless of how bad the home schedule is, how many of our players run afoul of the law, or how few students purchased tickets this year. If they win, the students will start showing up, and all will be good again. If they lose, though, there’s going to be blood. It’s just a matter of who. And it would appear that Bacon has a suggestion.

With all of that said, though, what if the students don’t come back, even if the team starts winning? What happens then? What if, having lost a few classes of incoming students, we can’t get them back? Now, you can attribute declining ticket sales to the fact that the team isn’t good. What if it’s deeper, though? What if we’ve killed the golden goose?

[note: By “golden goose,” I’m referring to the commonly held belief that the University’s most diehard donors are those alumni who have positive memories of football weekends past.]

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  1. Posted June 8, 2014 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    Two more things that need to be addressed in this conversation.

    1. The demographics of the student body are different now than they were a generation ago. Fewer students attending the University are from Michigan, and likely don’t share the same familial associations. A kid who grew up in New York, or in China, for that matter, isn’t likely to be as invested as a kid who grew up on a farm in western Michigan, watching games on TV, surrounded by family members who went to school at UM.

    2. There are more entertainment options now than there were a generation ago. The world is smaller. Back in the day, a UM home football game was the center of the universe. Now, thanks to TV and the internet, not so much.

    I don’t mention these points to take away from Bacon’s argument. I just think that it might not be as easy as, “Let’s do things the way we used to, and things will get better.” It sounds good, but my sense is that kids today are different than they were before.

  2. Posted June 9, 2014 at 12:03 am | Permalink

    In my opinion, football is a useless celebration of violence and capitalist minority exploitation.

    I don’t understand how football has ever been an “escape from modern life.”

    Did people play football in the 14th century?

  3. anonymous
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    There’s no going back, Mr. Bacon. There is only going forward. If there is value, it will be extracted.

  4. D6
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Donors care about tradition and they care about winning, and the two are likely linked in their minds. They thought, when they got “Michigan men” running things, that everything would be right again. That’s not what happened though. Now it’s time for some soul searching. Bacon’s in a good spot. It’s easy to be the defender of Bo’s legacy in this town, especially when we’re losing.

  5. Posted June 9, 2014 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Full disclosures first:

    I used to work in the PR department in Michigan athletics
    I’m friendly with John Bacon, reviewing his most recent book (can’t find a link, but the review was positive)

    First, some context with Bacon. He earned two degrees at Michigan, taught at U-M for years (winning The Golden Apple Award in 2009) and was a huge proponent of Michigan athletics through Bo and Red Berenson and into Rich Rodriguez. That’s the book that got him on the wrong side of some people in the athletic department. What was supposed to be a one-year book project (Michigan moving into the modern era of football with a new philosophy, etc.) turned into a three-year nightmare that made Bacon unpopular with Michigan AND Rich Rodriguez (some people think he’s buddy-buddy with Rich Rod but he’s not … I don’t think they’ve spoken since the book came out).

    That was the genesis of some of the friction with Bacon because he uncovered some of the problems with the Rich Rod hiring and firing. He was open and honest about issues with Bill Martin too, but there doesn’t appear to be any lingering animosity there.

    Then Bacon started his new book project which was a look at the Fight for the Soul of College Football. Bacon focused on the Big Ten, looking at issues at Penn State (Sandusky related) and big changes at Michigan related mostly to marketing. Michigan was an easy subject to cover in this aspect because they went from pretty conservative marketing measures to turning gameday experiences into major events – and charging accordingly.

    I think Bacon is probably a little hurt that his alma mater is going down this path – more than a normal alum, because he’s been part of the whole process and (I assume) thinks it can be done differently, with more tradition and “soul” maintained in the process.

    Sure, alumni complain about changes all the time, but as progress moves on, generally the numbers bear things out. Bacon has added ammo now because the numbers are also slipping as Michigan is moving more towards this “pro” model. Attendance issues, perception issues and winning issues. Bacon’s credentials were famously yanked and I’m sure he was a little miffed, though, truly, who would want to sit in the press box feeling the eyes of certain people boring through your skull rather than watching from your home or a friend’s house?

    Now, why is attendance slipping for students? What might the big issue be? Mark outlined a few facts about being a college student in Ann Arbor these days, but coupled with changing personalities of kids and more entertainment options and faster phones are two things:

    1. Michigan wasn’t awesome when freshmen were kids: The New York Times put out a cool article a while back about how your childhood experiences with sports teams cloud your adulthood. If a team was great when you were 8-12 years old and you were into sports, chances are you’ll be more of a diehard fan of those teams. If this is the case, Michigan is in trouble. Permit me to link to my Damn Arbor article about it here:

    2. Michigan football games aren’t unique anymore: It’s still fun to see Michigan wallop a bad team if the experience is more about the product on the field. The Michigan gameday experience is now about flashy music, fireworks, jets flying overhead, more music, commercials, more commercials, a jetpack or two, maybe a field goal kicking mule (TBD) and once, Beyonce on the jumbotron. Kids aren’t impressed by that stuff as much as they used to be when jetpacks were cool and you couldn’t listen to Seven Nation Army anytime, anywhere. What Michigan gamedays could offer was a college band, rituals and traditions, hanging out with pals and eating expensive hotdogs, and maybe watching a field goal kicking mule at halftime (okay, that’s still cool). The gameday experience today is kind of meh to these kids. Better wifi isn’t going to solve that. Better teams will help. But making the gameday experience unique from, say, the Lions or Red Wings or whatever they see on TV is important.

    I have no solutions. If I did, Hunter Lochman would have already emailed me.

    On word #2,300, I rest.

  6. XXX
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    You can’t hide it either. When it’s general admission seating for students you can really tell when 3/4s of them aren’t there.

  7. Book Reader
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    The number of fucks that are given:

  8. Posted June 9, 2014 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    Richard, thank you for the comment! I’m sorry to hear about the problems Mr. Bacon has had. It does go to prove one of my favorite sayings though–whenever you do anything important, someone will hate you for it. (One of my old college professors used to say that and, while he was an ass, I’m afraid he was right on this one)

  9. idea man
    Posted June 10, 2014 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    They should name each individual seat after a donor in irder to generate excitement.

    “I got The Ira J. Freedman seat F36-c this season!”

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