On my way to the fateful September 27th, 2014 game between Michigan and Minnesota, I pulled my phone out of my pocket and started taking pictures.
I’d walked the same path to the stadium dozens of times on game days since the mid-1990s. Never before had I seen Granger Avenue, normally packed with cars parked on lawns and long-running tailgates spilling onto the sidewalks, so eerily quiet.
90 minutes before kickoff. Weather definitely wasn’t the issue that day.
The optics didn’t improve upon reaching Michigan Stadium. Despite the athletic department giving tickets away at an unprecedented rate (who could forget the botched two Cokes “retail activation”), the announced attendance of 102,926 was comically inflated to preserve the precious 100K streak. Large swaths of seats sat empty; the sections containing fans had a lot more elbow room than usual.
My view from the press box at 3:30 pm.
Most of you remember what followed: a debacle of a loss in front of an ornery crowd, Shane Morris suffering what the athletic department eventually deemed a “probable, mild concussion” before getting sent back onto the field, a full-fledged protest that moved from the Diag to the front lawn of the school president’s house, and Michigan eventually cleaning house after a 5-7 season.
That weekend proved to be the breaking point for Dave Brandon and Brady Hoke. A program doesn’t reach such a moment, however, without a buildup. Brandon’s unparalleled ability to enrage Michigan fans is well-worn territory. Much of the fanbase wanted Hoke fired after he went 7-6 (3-5 Big Ten) the previous season. Instead, Brandon allowed him to replace embattled offensive coordinator Al Borges in the hopes a staff shakeup could save the head coach.
One of the primary warning signs that fan interest had reached a nadir was the preseason push to get fans to buy tickets—a lot of tickets. Starting in late May of 2014, the athletic department started advertising something I’d never seen before: ticket packages for groups of ten or more. They pushed these hard, sending out 11 tweets from the @UMichFootball account in a week.
This level of public desperation to get butts in seats disappeared soon thereafter; Jim Harbaugh had arrived, after all, and the football improved substantially. For a while, at least.
Before the pandemic hit, the group ticket tweet made its not-so-grand return. A crowdless, shortened 2020 season saved Michigan the aesthetic embarrassment of a stadium littered with empty seats. The brutal 2-4 performance of the team, however, only added to fan apathy. A coaching staff overhaul doesn’t appear to have turned that around.
Group tickets appear to be available for every home game save Washington and Ohio State, based on the interest form at the official site.
The athletic department at least isn’t spamming us with repeated tweets yet. The same can’t be said regarding their emails. I’m acutely aware that U-M has released mix-and-match ticket packages.
While that campaign raised a red flag, these types of deals aren’t wildly unusual, even if the volume of emails seemed excessive. Getting back-to-back emails about a Fourth of July “FLASH Sale” for the season opener, on the other hand…
…yeah, those felt desperate. This is a subject line you expect to see as the result of an impulse purchase on Instagram, not one you anticipate receiving from the venerable Michigan football program.
I’m gonna go out on a limb and say this won’t be your last chance to purchase affordable tickets to the Western Michigan game.
In theory, this should be a season met with great anticipation. The game day experience last year was one of isolation and the loss of long-standing routine. Few events of any type in the state can match the buzz of Ann Arbor on a typical football weekend. One would think fans would be clamoring to recapture that experience.
As Michigan has learned the hard way over the last decade, however, only so much of a fanbase will remain blindly loyal. Harbaugh’s reworked contract, which allows U-M to pull the plug without eating a big buyout after this season, didn’t satisfy the people who wanted him gone or those who preferred he get a stable commitment from the school.
The fans have experienced this before: the once-beloved coach on the hot seat given one more chance with some new assistants, the uncertainty at quarterback, the lack of depth on defense, the fear that the scheme (whatever it is) won’t meld with the roster, and, yes, the ticket promos. There’s also a new experience that could hold back attendance as the department rolls out tickets for mobile phones and discontinues print-at-home stubs this year.
Anecdotally, I’ve heard from a number of people that this past year proved to be their breaking point for renewing season tickets. Having to watch home games from the couch broke the spell for some fans, especially with the program itself mired in a bad season.
The surreal sight of football played in an empty Big House may be replaced by pictures nearly as jarring: barren streets and empty seats on game days. The program needs to give fans reasons to show up; the opportunity to be there isn’t enough.
That may put as much pressure on Harbaugh as any on-field issue. Discontent dictates change in college football. This fanbase literally isn’t buying what the program is selling anymore.
I had 4, gave back 2, sort of wish I'd given back the other 2. I'd rather invest my money in basketball.
Kind of wild, especially coming off the pandemic. I was a recent MSU season ticket holder before 2020, and went to GVSU so the illusion of couch football was not new to me. I missed in person so bad that I will be renewing with gusto, despite a rough season last year from MSU. Kind of shocked that UM has had to do these promos coming off a no fan season. Not in a rival rub your nose in it way, honestly kind of impressed at the strength of the UM consumer to demand more