Blaming the Customer

Posted by on May 3, 2013 in Uncategorized | 610 comments

[For the audio version, click here: Student_Football_Seats_2nd_edit_5-3-2013]

For decades, students at Michigan games were assigned seats, with the seniors getting the best ones.  But last year, according to the Michigan athletic department, roughly a quarter of the 22,000 people in the student section were no-shows.  So, athletic director Dave Brandon decided to switch the student section from assigned seating to general admission – first come, first seated — to get them to show up on time.  Or, at all.

In fairness, growing student apathy is not unique to Michigan, nor is the move to general admission seating.  And not all top programs allow every student who wants season tickets to get them, as Michigan always has.

Nonetheless, the students, who were accustomed to starting in the end zone as freshmen, then moving year by year toward mid-field, went ballistic.  They gathered more than 2,000 signatures for a petition, and 1,500 “likes” for their movement on a Facebook page, just three hours after the announcement.  In an admittedly unscientific poll conducted by The Michigan Daily, 85 people said they “love it” while 497 said they “hate it.”

Yes, some students can display a breathtaking sense of entitlement.  And they won’t get much sympathy from the average fans, who have to pay two or three times more for their tickets, plus pay out a Personal Seat Donation – and that’s only after they get off a wait list, which costs another $500 just to get on it.

But before we bash the students too much, perhaps we should ask why they’re not showing up.  Getting mad at your paying customers for not liking your product as much as you think they should, then punishing them for it, is probably not something they teach at Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

“Why didn’t the athletic department ask for any student input before implementing this?” asked Central Student Government president, and business school student, Michael Proppe.  Good question.

But if the athletic director didn’t ask the students what they thought about the new policy, or why they arrive late or not at all, I have a few hunches.  Because tickets are so expensive now, and games take so long, the current students didn’t go when they were kids – which is when you get hooked on watching the band flying out of the tunnel and the players touching the banner.  No matter how tired or hungover we were in college, we wouldn’t think of missing those moments.

Of course, our habit formed because we knew the game was going to start at 1:05, every Saturday, for years.  Now it could be noon, or 3:30, or 8 – and sometimes they don’t tell you when until a couple weeks before the game.

Why?  TV, of course.  Which is to say, money.

Back then, we also knew Michigan would be playing a solid opponent – every game.  In Bo Schembechler’s 21 seasons, they played 77 games against non-Big Ten teams.  How many were not from major conferences?  Exactly nine: Tulane, in 1972, Long Beach State in 1987, and Navy seven times — but three of those Navy games were within two touchdowns, and two within one, which is far better than most Big Ten opponents fared against Michigan at that time .  The other 68 all played in what we now call BCS conferences – where the big boys play.

My freshman year, Michigan played all nine Big Ten opponents, and two non-conference teams.  Central, Western, or Eastern Michigan?  No, try 20th ranked Notre Dame on the road, and 12th ranked UCLA at home.  My junior year, Michigan’s first two home games were against first-ranked Miami and 16th-ranked Washington.  Think we got there on time?

Now they give us a steady diet of junk food football from lesser conferences, even lesser divisions, and expect us to pay steakhouse prices.  Delaware State, anyone?

Back then, we knew we would be entertained with first-rate football and first-rate band music – and nothing else — because only two games per season were televised.  No TV means no TV timeouts.  In those few moments we weren’t watching football actually being played, we were listening to music actually being played, with the band treating us to cult classics like Bullwinkle and the Blues Brothers.   And the entire event took less than three hours.

Now, every single game is televised, which means commercial breaks, which means games that push four hours, often in the cold.  During those breaks, instead of live band music – which you can’t get anywhere else – they often give us recorded rock music, which you can get anywhere else.  And now they’re replacing that with ads on the big-screen TVs.  Okay, the ads are for Michigan’s other teams, not toothpaste, but they don’t thrill any students I’ve met.

Some weekends the Wolverines don’t play at all, because after they added a 12th game, for still more money, the longer schedule requires off weeks, and also pushes the Ohio State game to Thanksgiving weekend.  So long, out-of-state students!

Everything we could take for granted – the starting time, the schedule, the non-stop fun – the current students cannot.  The students aren’t leaving Michigan football.  Michigan football is leaving the students.

Habits are hard to develop, but they’re easy to break.  Instead of bringing back the elements that students used to get hooked on in the first place, Brandon increased student tickets by 23 percent.

“Even though they want to try,” Brandon told MLive.com, “no one can make a claim that we’re doing anything here that’s financially motivated. (Because) we’re not.”

So how, exactly, is a 23-percent price hike not financially motivated?  Brandon says it’s to pay for Recreational Sports, but it all comes from the same pot of money that pays the director of a non-profit department almost $1 million a year, and pays to replace Schembechler Hall, built in 1990 for $12 million, with something bigger, better and more expensive.  They knocked it down this week.  I’m guessing they did not tell the donors who wrote those large checks for Bo’s building that they intended to tear it down in 23 years.

Brandon says he simply wants the students to come early, and I’ll take him at his word.  But some students are convinced he simply wants to run them off to make room for more full-paying fans, and his decisions – unwittingly, perhaps — have given them fodder for their conspiracy theories.

If Brandon is not answering to the past, is he focused on the future?  After angering these students, does he think they’ll come back 10 or 20 years from now, at four times the price — and bring their kids, to keep the chain going?

I wouldn’t bet the Big House on it.

But Brandon is.

* * * * *

Please join the conversation, but remember: I run only those letters from those who are profane or insane, and who include their FULL name. 

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14 Responses to “Blaming the Customer”

  1. John – your perspective is right, but…. how do you bring back that environment that created the student participation you reference? You can’t unfortunately. Short of Mike Barwis hauling each kid personally to the game … I don’t think the new approach is all that bad given the way it is now. I would think at least this way you will learn who are the most dedicated students are and then you can enhance this program based on the season’s (attendance) results

  2. love and agree with your comment re: ‘junk food football at steakhouse prices’ – until the fans demand better, the powers to be will continue with their policy of providing less for more !

  3. Exactly right again John. As a townie I loved the football games. Now it’s just not worth the hassle. And we all know that “junk food” sells..so does Brandon.

  4. Adam Sherman says:

    I have trouble understanding how making the the student section general admission will get more students there on time. The problem is not with the students that are good football fans–the kind that generally show up on time–it’s with the casual fans. Will they care about where they sit that much to show up early? I doubt it. The new policy seems to punish seniors and juniors (who presumably still care enough to buy season tickets).
    In short, what problem is this going to solve?

  5. Mark Anderson says:

    Most of this seems more of a critique on how the game of college football has changed. All schools deal with TV timeouts. All schools deal with crappy opponents. All schools deal with games at different times.

    One could easily replace “Michigan football” with “college football” in this passage: “Everything we could take for granted – the starting time, the schedule, the non-stop fun – the current students cannot. The students aren’t leaving Michigan football. Michigan football is leaving the students.”

    Look, kids just don’t care about sports the way previous generations did. You can point to a number of factors including the HDTV experience and the desire to group together in places other than a football stadium. Kids don’t banter back and forth the way we 35 year old adults do…they just don’t care.

    Sure, the critique of increasing prices is valid however that’s life. Costs increase everywhere. Tuition. Food. Books. Those who want to attend college still attend college. Those who want to attend football games will still attend football games.

    In the end, I applaud Brandon for trying something different. He has to. Times are changing.

    • Dave Brown says:

      Mark, how do you applaud Brandon? For raising all ticket prices and putting PSL on everything? For taking away student priority seniority seating because the casual fans aren’t showing up?

  6. john w minton jr says:

    John,

    The reason is more money. The new AD may know a great deal about pizza and raising money, but after a while, the baloney resists the grinder. My alma meter can’t fill up a phone booth on Saturday, because the students, alums,
    et al aren’t buying the product. Ticket sales are no longer important when TV is footing the bill and Annual Giving is still bringing in big bucks for a mediocre
    product, both academic and athletic. Education is not about buildings, just a dedicated teacher and a dedicated student.

    I didn’t care where I sat in college as long as it wasn’t on the visitor’s side. And I remember sitting in a sold out Yale Bowl that seated 70,000 people (not my university).

    I have found that looking for answers requires looking for the money to establish motive for most actions. If the AD’s job is to raise money, why not stiff the students. Their only option is to change schools.

    Is the problem a lack of student sales or lack of fannies in the seats? It’s hard to solve a problem if you haven’t really defined it. I suspect the real problem was wanting, not needing, more money.

    bomberjohn5

  7. David Shand says:

    I haven’t been to a game in years and I used to never miss them. Reasons? Crappy schedule. You pay for 7 games and get 3 good ones. Too long. I have been ready to shoot the guy in the red hat. Too expensive. It was $3 a ticket when I went to school here. I don’t expect 3 bucks.
    But $80? For Eastern, Central and Western? Seat licensing. Will never ever pay extortion. And my kids don’t care about Michigan football. They could take it or leave it. We go to a lot of Michigan softball games.

  8. Kaitlin Flynn says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful article. Particularly striking is the price increase– as graduate students we make far less than the average staff worker at UM, plus we generally don’t get as much money from Mommy and Daddy for things like this. Sure, the average Michigan student (more than 50%) now come from families where the average income is above $250,000/yr. But what about the rest of us, on financial aid, on fixed income, or with lower class parents? Essentially it feels like a big ‘screw you’ from the administration.
    Proppe is right– they didn’t ask for student input at all. Then, they delayed the announcement until finals week, when students would have a hard time responding. And less than 24 hours after the announcement, ticket sales opened.
    Screw you too, Dave Brandon.

  9. Jennie Dalton says:

    John,
    Your point is well made. Many of the reasons the Athletic Department gives for doing things simply don’t ring true, so now I don’t think you have to be part of the tinfoil hat wearing crowd to see this move as a way to ultimately sell more full priced tickets. I do not believe Mr. Brandon understands the difference between ticket buyers and fans. So long as the tickets are sold and the most money possible is being made, he considers it a win. I think that is incredibly short-sighted. Ticket buyers don’t dress head-to-toe in maize and blue, show up early, stay late, or cheer ‘til their hoarse. Ticket buyers sit back and wait to be entertained by the ”Wow” event. The AD and the Sport Marketing Department seem to be diligently emulating the professional sports environments to appease the ticket buyers. I am afraid they are going to accomplish their goal, and by the time they realize that one of the many things that makes college sports better is indeed the unique, rowdy, fun atmosphere, it may well be too late. We’ll be stuck with beautiful, shiny, generic, soulless arenas filled with people who don’t care.

  10. Mark Pontoni says:

    John,

    The biggest factor I think is the level of competition. I live four hours from Ann Arbor and drive in every weekend for games and have for years. But I can tell you that crawling out of bed for Delaware State seems really dumb to my wife and increasingly so for me as well. I’ve had the discussion with my sons and friends and I have never wavered from the position that I’d much rather lose 2-3 games a year against Florida State, Colorado, Notre Dame, Oregon, etc., than go 12-0 and have to watch 4-5 really bad games. The product is suffering and no amount of seating policy changes is going to get people to watch stuff they don’t want to watch.

  11. Mark Lewis says:

    I guess I’ve have to be the designated dissenter. While the unreserved seats may be new to football such a policy has been in place for the last several years for basketball and it does indeed get the students there early. I was an usher for basketball a few years ago and I observed students are often the first to arrive to get first dibs on their seats.

    The problem arises because there are approximately 25,000 undergrads and 22,0000 buy tickets. Nowhere near 88% of the student body give a rip about football whereas nearly 100% of the students who buy basketball tickets are fans and relish the fact that the early bird gets the worm. If 25% or more of the students don’t care enough to show up until the 2nd quarter their outrage over this policy is pretty disingenuous. In four years there will be a nearly 100% turnover in the undergrad student body and the memory of entitlement will be on its way to disappearing and a new normal will emerge.

    For those who blame the weak schedule need a trip down memory lane. Back in the day the patsies were in the Big 10– despite the occasional hiccups against Purdue and Minnesota. In 1971 we outscored our opponents 421-83, in 1972 264-57, in 1973 330-68, in 1974 324-75, in 1975 324-130,in 1976 432-95 and on and on. At this point the fans became so disgruntled by the mismatches that they started a string of consecutive 100,000+ crowds that still goes on today.

    Blaming student attendance on variable start times strikes me as throwing the garbage at the wall to see what sticks. So we’re turning out students who get easily confused by different start times but seem to figure out precisely when the 2nd quarter starts?

    If 2,000 students signed a petition in protest would it be possible to assume the other 20,000 were too indifferent to manage the effort, or perhaps liked the new policy?

    I don’t know the details of the Schembechler Hall renovation any more than you do, but I do know that Donald Shepherd built a locker room for the softball team with his name on it about 15 years ago. That building is also being razed at the end of this season. But guess what, his name will be on the new one as well because he once again will be the principal donor. So my guess, unlike yours, is that the Schembechler Hall donors are well aware of what’s going on. I didn’t hear the concern when the business school razed the William Davidson building and replaced it by one from Stephen Ross. Perhaps Waterman Gym should be resurrected lest the Waterman family be offended.

    And while we’re guessing, my guess is that in 10 or 20 years the 25% who don’t show up will be writing comments to AnnArbor.com feigning outrage on the issue of the day, predicting doom and gloom in another 10-20 years. Meanwhile the rest will be filling the stadium having a good time.

    As you well know, Yost faced the same type of crowd with the similar forecasts of alienation and doom. Yost has been vindicated (except by those those who think Robert Maynard Hutchins has been vindicated) and Brandon will be too. I’d bet the House on it.

  12. John,
    You hit all my pet peeves. The BS games against small schools are particularly galling — the more so because they don’t play all the other BigTen teams. At least with the new divisions, they will play every opponent. But who will be excited about any of the first four games this season? Akron Zips?! What a joke.

  13. Greg Shea says:

    John,

    As usual, a fine column and valid points. For my part, I really have no issue with the move to GA. Brandon has made no secret about his interest in upgrading the in-game event experience, and when 9 or 10 sections (24-33) struggle to get filled up at game time, I think it does detract from that effort. (We can quibble separately about the value of this manufactured “experience”.) And obviously, he’s hoping that a first come, first served approach will motivate more of the students to get to the game on time.

    I could have done without the coincidental ticket price increase. It undermines DB’s intentions, pure or not.

    But as a consumer, I do sympathize with the notion that it’s none of anyone’s damn business what time I elect to show up at a sporting event that I have purchased a ticket for. Since when does my ticket purchase come with the expectation that I will “be” a certain type of fan? (On time. Positive. Cheer when I am told to. Be quiet when I am told to. Wear the clothes that I am told to wear. Spend a minimum amount at the concession stand. Put my trash in the garbage can. Exit quickly and in an orderly fashion. Just be a good little Michigan fan.)

    It’s all a bit much, isn’t it? And I wonder sometimes if that’s where we’re all headed. And to that, I say… “UGH”

    In a nutty way, I do wonder what DB would do if the students banded up in protest and decided not to show up for any games… 100% participation… until halftime? Hmmmmm.

    I would love to be a fly on the wall for the resulting discussion between the Director of Athletics and Madame President.

    Go Blue!

    GS

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