What is the future for University of Michigan football and how will it affect Ann Arbor?
Ann Arbor’s life is inextricably bound up with the University of Michigan. By “Ann Arbor’s life”, I mean both the daily course of life as it is lived here and the economics of the city and its citizens. Of course many UM staff and faculty live here (though that is an increasingly small fraction) and we all enjoy the range of cultural events available through the University, not to mention the occasional stroll across the Diag. The yearly influx of students affects both housing affordability and the mix of businesses on State Street. But the most impactful aspect of the UM that touches life here may very well be UM football. Thus, when UM football is in crisis, Ann Arbor is in crisis. The recent history of UM football, which has now culminated in the resignation of Athletic Director Dave Brandon on October 31, 2014, can fairly be said to be a crisis.
I became aware of the importance of UM football on the day of my introduction to Ann Arbor. We arrived for a house-hunting tour on a cold November day just after a fairly big snowfall. Our realtor picked us up at the Sheraton just after breakfast. His first act was to take us to the UM Stadium. At the time, access was fairly open, and he hauled us up the stairs to look over the expanse of field and bleachers. Waving exultantly to indicate the magnificence of the view, he invited us to take part in the wonder. I was cold (since I possessed no real winter clothing), slightly jet-lagged after a transcontinental journey from Southern California, and stressed by the prospect of house-hunting and moving. My response was impatient. He was greatly offended and scarcely spoke again for several hours.
This was in the golden age of Bo Schlembacher, and one of our new neighbors was such a football fan that our whole block reverberated on home football days. There were banners. The front page of the Ann Arbor News was completely occupied by football news and three-inch headlines led by “BO”. To this non-sports fan, all this was quite exotic.
UM football continued to expand its profile and influence, even as its prowess on the field declined. (Bo’s successor, Gary Moeller, endured a couple of years being called “Mo” by the Ann Arbor News, but the team did not reach its previous heights.) It has long been impossible to drive anywhere on city streets in the hours preceding a game, or to find a restaurant table on game day. The stadium reopened in 2010 after an extensive renovation that included premium suites with a private elevator. (These “skyboxes” elicited a protest based on the loss of egalitarian access to the community tradition.) Two years ago, the City of Ann Arbor began permitting the closure of Main Street during football games. The UM constructed an electronic marquee on Stadium that far exceeds size and placement permitted by Ann Arbor’s sign ordinance. As described by the Ann Arbor News,
The marquee is indeed the largest of its kind in the Ann Arbor area: it stands 21 feet above the ground and is 27 feet tall and 48 feet wide. It runs 18 hours a day, displaying four promotional messages per minute. On game days it shows video starting four hours prior to the game.
One reason the UM football machine has been able to expand its footprint on the city has been its profitability, founded on its faithful fan base. Joe Nocera, writing in 2010 about the stadium expansion in the New York Times, noted:
Even if its football team has a string of bad years, it still has an immensely loyal fan base, it will still secure the financial rewards that come with being in the Big Ten and it will still fill Michigan Stadium every time the team plays a home game.
But that fan base has been badly eroded during the tenure of Dave Brandon, who was installed in 2010 as Athletic Director. Brandon, who has been a CEO at Domino’s Pizza among other such high-profile positions, set out to exploit UM Football’s popularity for profit. He made his intentions clear in an early statement (quoted here from Crain’s Detroit Business):
“We’re going to need to grow our revenues, we’re going to need to continue to find out ways to stimulate growth in our external revenue streams and maybe create some new revenue streams that afford us the ability to grow,” he said.
John U. Bacon has written for years about Michigan football with sensitivity and acute perception. Bacon, in a column for the Ann Arbor Chronicle, described the practice of seat licenses (requiring an upfront “donation” for the privilege of buying tickets) and other changes that Brandon introduced to increase yield from the fans. He mentions that with his two seats, the cost is $1,700 (presumably for the season). He later identified the problems with the way fans were being treated and exhibited prescience in this June 2014 column for the Ann Arbor Chronicle:
This fall, Michigan is in danger of breaking its string of 251 consecutive games with 100,000-plus paid attendance, which started in 1975. Treat your fans like customers long enough, and eventually they’ll start behaving that way, reducing their irrational love for their team to a cool-headed, dollars-and-cents decision to buy tickets or not, with no more emotional investment than deciding whether to go to the movies.
There were many other grievances that will be detailed in the host of obituaries for this era.
I have been amazed at the trouble and expense that fans will go to in order to experience UM football. Some drive a long distance. They find parking ($20-$50), often arriving before 7:00 a.m. for a spot, or even pay to hire a party area for the perfect tailgate. There are anecdotal reports that people have bought downtown condos solely to have a place to stay on the 5-6 fall football weekends. This willingness to spend has been a boon to Ann Arbor’s hospitality industry. Hotels and restaurants may depend on those few weekends the way retailers count on Christmas. Clearly, that level of commitment and investment has been essential to the success of Michigan football.
The Concussion Issue
UM has had a miserable football season, with many games lost and worse, much critical comment about the quality of the play overall. But the last straw was the treatment of an injured player on September 27, 2014. (Timeline from Ann Arbor News) Quarterback Shane Morris was seen to take a fall and behave shakily, with contemporaneous reports that he seemed to have trouble standing. But he was then sent back into play by coach Brady Hoke. This scandalized viewers at the time, and the hue and cry only increased later. At first, both Hoke and Brandon denied that Morris had had a concussion, but in a statement the next day (reported by Crain’s), Brandon acknowledged that Morris had “a mild concussion”. The account only calls in to question the behavior of those charged with safeguarding the health of players, with evident poor communication at the field.
Concussions sustained while playing football have now been recognized as a serious medical problem. The CDC emphatically recommends that concussed athletes should be removed from play. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (changes in brain structure) is now thought to result from repeated head trauma. A number of former NFL players who suffered from various cognitive problems sued the NFL and were tentatively awarded a settlement. But this has not satisfied the critics. There are now increasing numbers of calls to regulate football at all levels (Compendium of New York Times coverage). There are also suggestions, even from lovers of the game, that it may be immoral to continue a game which results in a lower life expectancy for many players, with a high degree of risk for dementia or suicide.
Coinciding with this controversy is the increasing call for college football players to be better compensated, or to be able to join a union. The NCAA rules maintain that these are students and are compensated by the football scholarships they are awarded. But as this column by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar points out, the NCAA made billions last year, and coaches typically have salaries in the millions.
While these coaches and executives may deserve these amounts, they shouldn’t earn them while the 18-to-21-year-old kid who plays every game and risks a permanent career-ending injury gets only scholarship money — money that can be taken away if the player is injured and can’t contribute to the team anymore.
Students, Academics, and the Mission of the University
All of this calls into question the inherent fallacy of the concept of the “student athlete”, at least as the game is conducted today. I don’t know whether there are any studies showing how many UM football scholars are able to attain professional positions apart from professional football itself. In the past, football players for UM went on to often distinguished careers (Dave Brandon was himself in UM football back in the Bo Schlembacher days). Given the intense training and extended season for football nowadays, it seems to be quite a lot to surmount. The tradition of intercollegiate athletics comes from the “mens sana in corpore sano” ideal, in which one might be studying the classics on Thursday, play a game over the weekend, then back into the classroom or library the next day. Many college athletics programs still adhere to this ideal, as students in various departments might participate in music or theater along with a major. But it is questionable whether UM football still affords that flexibility.
It may be that the new UM President, Mark Schlissel, will be the person to lead a transition in the way the UM and its football program are joined. He has sent signals about this conundrum since his arrival here early last summer. He landed immediately in a controversy with the Regents over fireworks at the Stadium (a fight Brandon lost). Here were his remarks at the time:
What I want to be sure of is that athletics exist in an appropriate balance with everything else the university does. 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.
I also feel strongly that the students who come here to be athletes – are students and that they have all the opportunities for education and to take advantage of everything that goes on here at the university, as well as pursue the sport that they love.
Dr. Schlissel is a true scholar (his field is the area of gene regulation in immunology, a very hot subject) and clearly has a view of the University in its historical context as a community of scholars, advancing the preservation and continuation of knowledge. Now the UM is positioning itself as a premier international research university. There has been a lot of expansion, both within UM departments and in offshoots. There are reputations to be made, and money. There are thousands of academic careers to be advanced. The UM has a collective interest in the highest standards and performance. There are other things happening besides football.
Schlissel is clearly struggling with the role of UM football in a thoughtful and careful manner. Here is what he said in recent days after all the eruptions.
I think the sport of football and college athletics in general is certainly a matter of discussion and debate around the country. I’d like to develop clearer opinions. I’d like to work with our interim and our new athletic director to contribute to the process of evolution of college athletics in a direction that I think is more closely linked to the fact that there are academic institutions and students are here both for education and for the pursuit of sports they love. That’s as far as I’m able to go now.
He will have a great deal to reconcile. There are the finances – the program took on a lot of expenses with the stadium renovation, and Brandon seems to have made a number of investments in anticipation of the continued growth in revenues. There are some very influential and motivated alumni who want to see the program continue. First among these is Stephen M. Ross, who gave the UM $200 million last year. This brings his lifetime donations to $313 million. (So we now have the Stephen M. Ross Business School, and the Stephen M. Ross Athletic Campus.)
He’ll also have that great cloud of traditional UM football fans, many of whom are also alumni, to deal with. I suspect that at times he can hear the massed sound of those beating hearts. The passion is so great.
And then there are the business interests in the City of Ann Arbor.
Black September and October
A great deal of money flows into Ann Arbor during the home football games. We’ve gotten used to it. I am comparing it to Black Friday for retailers. People rent their lawns for parking. People work the Stadium in various ways, including the cleanup. There are sales of memorabilia. And the hospitality industry (hotels and restaurants) are usually up to full capacity. But a bad football season can cause worries, as detailed in this article in the Ann Arbor News. It quotes Mary Kerr of the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau (which is supported by the hotel industry via an accommodation ordinance tax) about the economic impact of the UM football season. Most of the figures come from a study in 2007, which estimated that each UM home football game has an impact of $14.8 million to the overall economy of Ann Arbor. A more recent study estimated that visitors to Ann Arbor associated with the UM (not clear whether they distinguished football and other sports from academic visitors) are responsible for $257 million in economic impact. Obviously, UM football is an important asset from the viewpoint of those affected by the dollars spent here.
An Uncertain Future
Will UM football just go on as it has, with a better administrator and some minor course corrections? Or will there be some real changes in the way the program relates to the University and, ultimately, the City of Ann Arbor? Can UM football escape the more global changes in the sport of football itself? The answers will doubtless result in some effect on our local community, whether or not we are individually interested in the sport itself.
UPDATE: This article on the Ann Arbor News site appears to be a rather comprehensive overview of the economics of Dave Brandon’s tenure as Athletic Director.
SECOND UPDATE: A couple of articles from Ann Arbor News indicate the difficulty Schlissel will have in reconciling academic concerns with Michigan football culture. On November 10, he spoke at a UM committee meeting on the balance between athletics and academics. On November 11, he found himself apologizing to the football coach, Brady Hoke. Here are his official comments.