I don’t know how many University of Michigan football fans we have in the audience, but I’d be curious to know what those of you who pay face value for tickets thought of yesterday’s short-lived “buy two Coke products and get two free tickets” promotion, which essentially set the value of a U-M ticket below $1.50. I imagine, if I’d paid $75 a piece for tickets, I’d be kind of pissed.
I suspect that, under most circumstances, folks would be relatively forgiving, knowing that U-M is up against the wall, desperately fighting to fill the seats and maintain their four-decade long 100,000+ attendance streak, but, given the current state of affairs in Ann Arbor, my sense is that this might be the straw that broke the camel’s back. It would be one thing if people felt that the team was moving in the right direction, but, as things stand now, I don’t get the sense that folks are willing to give the Athletic Department the benefit of the doubt. The trust, I think, is pretty much gone. And that, it seems to me, is a bigger problem than the product on the field.
As much as many of us would probably like to lay everything at the feet of U-M Athletic Director Dave Brandon, a staunch Republican with ties to Romney and Bain Capital, the truth is, much of it is out of his control. Sports are changing at every level. As awesome as the game day experience might be at the Big House, people are increasingly making the decision to forgo the traffic, the parking fees, and the crowds, and stay at home, where the beer is plentiful, the bathroom lines are shorter, and every play can be seen multiple times in high-defiinition. More importantly, though, university culture is changing. More so now than ever before, the incoming Freshmen at Michigan aren’t kids who grew up here in the state, constantly subjected to grandparents who dress in maize and blue every Saturday and make it a habit of blasting 50 year old recordings of the Michigan marching band prior to every kick-off. Sure, if the team were playing better, as a better class of team were coming to Ann Arbor, the drop-off in attendance might not have been so precipitous, but I think the problem would still be there. While football still matters, it just doesn’t matter like it did in the 1950′s, when there was significantly less competition for our attention. And we need to accept that we can’t just market ourselves out of that problem. We need to change the recipe.
Not to pick on Brandon, but I think what the situation calls for is a big, public mea culpa, not unlike the one issued by Domino’s when Brandon stepped down as their CEO. For those of you who may not remember, the Ann Arbor-based pizza franchise essentially made a public announcement in 2010, stating that they’d been taking their customers for granted, and serving them shitty pizza. They faced their criticism head-on, owned up to their awfulness under Brandon, and said that they intended to win back the trust of the American people. The campaign, which featured teary-eyed Domino’s employees confessing to making inedible pizzas, was painful to watch, and absolutely crazy, but it worked. People respected them for it. And I imagine that it might just work for whomever follows Brandon at U-M.
I don’t know that it would fill the Big House to capacity, but someone, in my opinion, needs to say, “We’re sorry for the talk of drones and fireworks, and the prices we’ve been charging.” Someone needs to say, “Irrespective of whether we win or loose, we need to do a better job of listening to those of you who care deeply for this team and its traditions.” Someone needs to say, “We’re going to start treating you like a members of the family, and not just customers.” And, perhaps most importantly, someone needs to say, “Tickets for students, from this point forward, will be affordable.” If this ship is ever going to be righted, you need to get the undergraduates in the stands, investing in the experience, and laying the groundwork for long-term sustainability… Yes, winning is important, but my sense is that it’s not the main thing. The main thing is getting undergrads onboard, so that the traditions continue, and treating people like true partners. Michigan fans, I suspect, would forgive the occasional loss if they felt that they weren’t being sold a bill of goods.