things go poorly
Preface: are things like they used to be?
Game day in Ann Arbor is an experience steeped in tradition. Nevertheless, the stadium experience, and with it the student section experience, has necessarily evolved, even just within my 6+ years in the NW corner. So to kick things off, here are some rapid fire questions/answers:
Flasks? Yup, though I will add that, at least in the lower sections, most students appear to have gotten less tolerant of drinking and drunkenness from other students. If you’re being positive and happy drunk, great we love you. If you’re incessantly bitching about the team, complaining about the players, generally being negative and happen to stumble into me, I’m getting event staff. And I wouldn’t be the only one.
Marshmallows? Uhh honestly I haven’t seen this in any season I’ve been there…
Beach balls? Have seen them recently, didn’t today.
Cow bell? Depressingly not yet this season. Other students reading this: we must fix this if nothing else
Travelling band? Nope (and I don’t think they have for a year or so but I’m not sure). Definitely remember being entertained by that in years past
International student experience: Very little experience here. I can say that in my section down in the row A area there aren’t very many (if any) international students. For the CMU game last year there were a small handful nearly first in line in the student queue, though from talking to them they were under the impression that the game started when the queue opened….
Engaged? Yes, mostly. It’s hard to compare to past years given that the Row A experience is a little different than that in Row 96… But the students are certainly no less engaged than any other segment (and for better or worse they booed the punt decision just as much as everyone else)
The clock finally wound down to all zeroes in what was a rather strange game at the Big House. We cheered as the team ran over to the stands and then back down the tunnel., the small handful of us that remained down by the railing packing up while trying to ascertain from the stadium police what on earth the rope sectioning off the field from the sidelines was for. Apparently it is for preventing a field rush. This year. Against Miami. With a chem lecture’s worth of people left in the stands. Ok. We turned to the people behind us,
“Have a great weekend.”
“See you next week.”
There, that right there is in a nutshell the problem that we had last year in the student section. We hear every week “how great it is to be part of something that is the team,” but the team is something considerably more than just the 11 young men in winged helmets on the field at any time. It is more than the full roster, the coaches, trainers, student managers and everyone else who could by any definition conceivably purport to be affiliated with the program. Or at least it was supposed to be. The team is supposed to be something that unites every single person wearing their maize and blue in that stadium, or watching it on TV, or listening on the radio, or running around with their fingers shoved in their ears until they could watch the game they’d
taped TiVo’d later. The team is the group of people in the stadium around you, who over the course of 6–8 games you got to know—those people who were as much a part of your game day experience as the people you chose to sit by. And last season the athletic department forgot that.
Given what we’ve heard or been able to read between the lines about much of what went wrong last season: lack of upperclassmen leadership, lack of cohesion on the line, or the many other instances of lacking “the team”, it seems only fitting that that disconnect spread deep into the fanbase. Instead of creating an element of the team, general admission pitted students against each other for the best seats in the stadium. The result was often ugly: students trying to sneak in late to get better seats, students yelling at each other, anger and hostility, lack of team.
This year things seem different. Is everything hunky dory in the student section? No. You still get the occasional person drunk to the point of falling on you, trying to usurp your seat, and degrading the fan experience for everyone around you. Fortunately event staff can deal with that pretty readily (especially if this person is in the wrong seat—as is often the case because, listen man, reading is drunk when I’m this challenging). But in spite of that, the cohesive, friendly, spirit seems to be back; at least in the superfan rows.
Unfortunately there’s been some lingering damage. As we all are aware with the recent struggles on the line, poor decisions from the past can linger for far into the future. During GA, the bottom of the student section was ill-prepared to correctly do the wave, or, for that matter, nearly any cheer. I naively thought that bringing seniors and grad students back down to the bottom would fix the problem. As today’s rather unfortunate attempts to start the wave while only up by a touchdown, and the subsequent inability to start the wave in the waning minutes of the 3rd quarter once we were up by 14, demonstrated, that isn’t quite the case. This year’s seniors haven’t had a decent wave experience or even good wave leadership in two years. Last time it went well they were in row 60; they had no part in starting it.
We can bring that experience back. It’ll take some effort and some creativity. We’ll have to re-teach them. It’s doable. It’ll be challenging, but for the fan experience, it needs to be done.
Seating Policy in Review—Take 2
So honestly, after last weekend, I expected to be writing about how we’d tailed off quite a bit from last week, how students had filtered in, but outside of student fans weren’t there before kickoff. Well by and large that wasn’t the case. While many, many seats stayed empty throughout the stadium, the student section filled in by and large on time, and to no worse a percentage than the stadium as a whole. 102,824 will make *every* section look empty. For what it’s worth, the new policy does seem to motivate students to show up on time, even after a dispiriting loss, even against an overmatched opponent. What the policy doesn’t do is motivate students to come in the first place, and to stay to the bitter end.
The first of those lies entirely on the athletic department. When our attendance is dropping to levels not seen since 1995, and student ticket sales dropped to less than ¾ of last year’s, it’s time to look long and hard about the experience we are providing for the students. Asking students who often have little if any income, many of whom are taking on thousands of dollars in debt, to pay increasingly outrageous prices for a lackluster home schedule is unsurprisingly going to result in a small, less effective student section. Not to mention less engaged alumni down the road. From those I’ve talked to who are on the new Football Student Advisory Council, it seems like the athletic department is now listening. Sometimes slow to act, but listening. Vendors selling $2 bottles of water in the student section: fantastic idea. Allowing people to again bring in unopened bottles of water or empty reusable bottles would be significantly better, and obviously the ticket prices are the big one, but it’s a start.
The second point is on us. It’s a culture thing and it’s sad to say that it’s changed as much as it has. I remember riding the bus as a freshman reading a Daily article (I didn’t know any better back then) that was discussing at length the tradition of students staying until the bitter end. No matter what happened on the field, no matter how bleak things looked, those who stayed, well you know. And those in my year really seemed to live that. Our first season was the fan crucible of 2008. We were rewarded with the Wisconsin comeback. We had our resolve tested with the rain, snow, sleet, and locusts for the Northwestern game. We were kicked in the metaphorical nards rivalry game after rivalry game. But after 2008 we were committed. We watched the team slowly crawl back to some modicum of relevance and it felt like our commitment and loyalty had paid off. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case for those who started in years after us. The seniors today weren’t on campus for RichRod. They didn’t experience that. They’ve had the opposite experience. They came in as freshmen and we won a BCS bowl. Since then we’ve underwhelmed. I have to imagine that, paired with that underwhelming performance, past classes (mine included) failed to adequately instill in the younger students the same rabid fandom that kept me at the 2008 Northwestern game to the end, and brought me from row 96 to row 14 in freezing rain despite numb everything. We were absolutely convinced in 2011 that the pain was over, our fandom had been vindicated. Michigan was back. We told the younger students about staying at games and cheering Michigan on to greatness. It appears that we may have missed the operative clause: “no matter what”. That too is changeable. It’ll be a slow process of growth back into “the team” but it’s doable.
Bringing back the student experience is not an overnight thing; we need to give them something to believe in. And with a team that has met its share of struggles and with an athletic department that seems more interested in the bottom line than the student experience, for all too many it’s hard to find that. Nevertheless change is possible. In my freshman year I attended my first UM BB game. They gave us free transportation, tickets, pancakes and a t-shirt just to get us to show up. They did what was necessary to get students there despite the underwhelming performance of the team. Since then we’ve been conference champions twice, have gone to the national championship game, and have won 6 of the last 9 against once dominant MSU (who had won 18 of the 21 games prior to the most recent 9). That basketball team got back to greatness because everyone was committed to doing what was necessary to bring it back. If the football team does make it back it will be because of the same reasons. If we want the student fan experience to come back to greatness, we of course need commitment from the students, but most critically we need the athletic department to let go of the processes that aren’t working, to stop focusing on things that should never have been the goal, and to do what is necessary to ensure that Michigan fans are not only part of the largest crowd watching a football game, but that that crowd has the best experience of any crowd anywhere in America, throughout the season.
I plan to write another From the Student Section diary for tomorrow's game, so if there are any aspects of the student experience people want some commentary on, I'd love to hear about them so I can keep eyes/ears open at the game.
As a reward for feedback/ideas, here's a dancing Kermit:
[Note: Sorry for the week delay on this, reaching 100 points takes some time apparently…]
I’ll be trying to provide these write-ups as often as I can for home games. If you are familiar with the recent changes in student season ticket seating, skip to the next paragraph. For those who missed all the drama last season (and who could blame you), the athletic department decided inexplicably that none of the following contributed to the inability of students to show up to games on time:
- Crappy scheduling,
- Crappy timing,
- Poor performance,
- Rising prices,
- Things being expensive in the stadium and thus eating before arriving, and
- An athletic department that just seems to not give even a Norfleet-sized care about the student experience.
Instead they figured that students were not sufficiently motivated and that they wanted better cell service in the stadium. They thus switched to general admission, which I took as a semester long course in game theory. Things went about as expected with the stadium empty at kickoff against Akron and there being a footrace where it’s a small miracle no one was injured for UTLII. Enter Michael Proppe and the student government who turned a year of haranguing the misguided policy of the athletic department into a seating policy change that actually makes sense.
Well I’d say so (disclaimer on the opener), but I’m biased just slightly by my location.
It is worth noting (per the play-by-play offered by @mikeproppe) that at MSU’s opener, their student section looked significantly emptier at kick off. This is likely both that it was in fact emptier, and that with equal attendance percentages (<100%) GA will always look emptier.
With the new seating policy here is a list of things that I did not do for the opener:
- Wake up at 7am for a middling opponent.
- Wake up more than 12 hours before kickoff (Ok that was for the ND game but still).
- Get sunburned before kickoff.
- Roast hotdogs over a makeshift grill made of a can of sterno.
- Light said grill on fire.
- Have to donate my tailgating supplies to actual tailgaters.
- Be uncharacteristically tired by halftime.
- Spend 15 minutes furiously arguing with fellow fans about their behavior during a veritable stampede (Again the ND game)
- End up sitting in the wrong section without recourse because queues are hard, man.
- End up next to an obnoxious opposing fan, just because she was willing to show up early (seriously whoever you were from Nebraska, the Ohio guy was more tolerable. Significantly)
And the list of things I did do for the opener:
- Go to a pre-game brunch
- Watch about half of the PSU/UCF game before trekking over to the stadium
- Show up in time for warm-ups
- Enjoy game, being loud and energized
- Leave game with enough energy (and soul) left to want to watch all of the interesting matchups still on TV
During the Game
The student section seemed much more in order throughout the game. People seemed more cordial with each other (probably a combination of not having our souls sucked out of us through a straw, and the fact that we weren’t competing with each other for seats). People seemed louder and more engaged. And the wave was executed significantly better (it wasn’t the slowed, split wave from a few years back but hey, progress). Hell, some students near me even lifted the one App State fan for ASU's second touchdown because he was pretty drunk and they felt bad.
I won’t go too in-depth on my take on on-the-field analysis, as it seems that that has been handled pretty thoroughly, but my one hot take comes from the ASU drive early on where they faced a 3rd and 25. I could feel the anticipation welling up. The sense beaten into me by the last 6 years that this was the moment we’d get gashed. They’d find the seam, get a guy wide open 30 yards out and it’d be off to the races. Instead we shut it down handily. I was floored. Even against an overmatched, undersized opponent I had gotten used to the secondary getting torched like that, time and time again. So maybe this year has something different in store. We’ll find out tonight.
Yes, Yes, but about the cell service
While I wasn’t actively paying attention to the cell coverage/wifi. I will say it is significantly better. Was it the deciding missing piece in the fan experience? Absolutely not. It did help with the following game related activities:
- Checking in on H.A.I.L.: I could do it, progress made.
- Getting “WE SAW YOU ON TV #rowA” texts: phone lit up like a Christmas tree a few times. Not complaining
- Checking other scores during TV timeouts…well actually the new score board design is much improved and the ticker of the scores was a nice touch, so that wasn’t actually that important.
- Coordinating post-game meet-up plans with out of town relatives: Possible.
Deal maker/breaker? No. But it was just that a nice touch that, assuming we address the actual problems, will eventually help improve the fan experience.
So is it better?
Honestly, it’s hard to say. I appreciate the superfan/seniority based seating. I appreciate it a lot. But in the long list of ways the AD is finding to make things more difficult and less enjoyable for fans (especially student fans), I’m just not sure how big of an impact this change will have. With the schedule still being what it is, and prices still being what they are, and games taking more and more time. I just don’t know. I’ll be curious to see how this holds up when the semester gets going, people need to be studying more, the weather gets colder, etc. The one thing I want to seriously point out though, is that the student section is approximately 60% of what it is last year. While I fully expect things to bounce back with a better schedule next year, that type of drop-off, regardless of schedule, is inexcusable. Yes non-students pay more for their tickets, yes they make up 75% of the attendees, yes they’ve been doing this a lot longer, etc. But the fan experience is significantly improved by having a loud and energetic and engaged student section (and a large one at that). It seems like we have a seating policy that motivates students to show up on time. Now let’s work on pricing and scheduling that get them to show up at all.
Surprised this went unposted, but Darren Rovell wrote a piece on ESPN.com today highlighting the trend of poor student turnout in college football. Elements of the article have certainly been touched on in the past around these parts, but attendence (students in particular) is a looming problem, especially with next years yawn-inducing home slate.
The Michigan-specific part:
This year, the University of Michigan drew the most fans of any school for the 16th year in a row. But 26 percent of students who paid for their tickets didn't show up at an average home game this season. That's an increase from 25 percent last year and 21 percent in 2011.
Not only did Michigan have more no-shows, they also only sold 19,850 student season tickets, about a 10 percent drop from the year before. Michigan added a $7.50 fee to each ticket this season to support student programs and also took away senior reserved seating in favor of a general admission policy which contributed to fewer people buying tickets.
Hoping to slow the slide, Michigan sent out a questionnaire to students at season's end, asking them why they might not have been happy with the stadium experience.
Adam Stillman, a senior at Michigan who attended all but one of the team's home games this year, shared his answers with ESPN.com. How he prioritized his answers might scare administrators, many of whom have looked to Wi-Fi connectivity as the answer to attracting younger fans. Stillman ranked sitting with friends, sitting close to the field, the outcome of the game, tailgating, the student section atmosphere, food specials and entertainment before the importance of Wi-Fi.
"I've kind of accepted that I'm not getting reception in and around Michigan Stadium," Stillman said. "The problem is in all the other areas. There's nothing to do while I'm waiting on line for an hour to get into the stadium, and there's little added value from being in the stands watching the game.
As the business of college football grew, many schools began moving student sections into some of the worst seats in order to make boosters happy in prime seats. But as student crowds at some schools started to fade, athletic department officials at those schools began to understand that if they didn't get the students in the building while they were at school, they might not get their money in the future."
Success, or lack thereof, on the field obviously plays an important role. For years, Iowa's student section capacity was steady at 10,400 students per game. But this year after going 19-19 in games from 2010-2012, the school only sold 7,500 tickets and an average of 30 percent of those students didn't show up for the games. In the middle of the season, Iowa closed off two sections of the stadium previously occupied by students and began selling those tickets to the general public. Only half the student tickets purchased for the game against Michigan, which happened during the school's Thanksgiving break, were used.
Missing one out of every fifth student who bought a ticket has become pretty common these days. Michigan State has sold out its 13,500 student tickets since 2007, but the school says its no-show rate for home games this year still was about 20 percent. That's for a season in which the Spartans went 13-1, won the Big Ten title and ended the season with a victory over Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
Penn State's overall attendance has been on a five-year decline that represents a total drop of almost 10 percent. The students are actually seen as a bright spot, as the school sold almost 1,000 more full season tickets this year (21,368). An 18.1 percent student no-show rate is actually among the best in the Big Ten.
"While game time, opponent, promotion and record all had some effect, weather had the most direct effect on our student crowd," said Jeff Garner, Penn State's assistant athletic director for ticketing sales and service.For Penn State, that means cold, wind, rain and snow.
Footnotes to an amazing game...
- I'm not one to shit on the student section, but it was a pathetic sight at kickoff and took awhile to fill out. I don't know if it's total apathy, broke students selling tickets instead of attending a presumed massacre, logistical failings, or some combination, but that was an embarrassment and I hope they didn't show it on TV. I know I'm re-hashing an old debate but where does the AD go from here with student ticket policy?
EDIT: The section I was referring to is not even the student section. General admission failures and fan disinterest is disappointing, but old news.
- We kept the piped-in music running well into the OSU playclock on multiple occasions. I believe ND drew some ire for pulling a similar tactic on us recently. I have mixed feelings; the "Michigan Man" in me felt like it was dubious at best, but I don't mind a little gamesmanship. What did bother me was the use of "Hell's Bells" on not only second down but at one point first (albeit in the red zone). At UTL the wild atmosphere worked, but Saturday was the first time I wanted the piped-in stuff off my lawn, even if it did seem to encourage crowd participation in general.
As for the game itself, I'm proud of the kids and will leave it at that. I don't comment or post much, but these were two topics that haven't received much mention (obligatory SIAP) on account of the ridiculously entertaining, head-shaking, MGoWedgeIssue of a football game that took place. Seemed like the right time to ask what people thought.