Michigan Football: Losing the Next Generation of Fans?

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Michigan Football: Losing the Next Generation of Fans?
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Despite a 7-6 finish and nearly a decade having passed since its last Big Ten title, Michigan again led the nation in football attendance. According to the NCAA, this marked the 16th consecutive season that the school has won the attendance title.

But while overall attendance continues to be strong, student attendance has been problematic. A significant number of students are foregoing the game-day experience despite efforts by the athletic department to encourage attendance.

Is Michigan losing the next generation of fans? And if so, what are the long-term implications?

MLive.com reported that during the 2012 season, 50 percent of students arrived late, and 25 percent failed to show up at all. Michigan instituted a loyalty program, general admission seating and even offered donuts to entice students to arrive early with little reduction in the number of empty student seats.

Now, a significant number of students have decided to not buy tickets for next season.

The Michigan athletic department expects to sell approximately 7,000 fewer tickets this upcoming season compared to Brady Hoke's first season, according to associate athletic director Dave Ablauf in a report by Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press.

Michigan Student Season Tickets Sales
Year Number Sold
2011 20.961
2012 21,770
2013 19, 854
2014 13,500 (estimate)

Michigan Athletic Department

One possibility may be that Michigan is paying the price for six seasons of mediocre football. The Rich Rodriguez era and the last two seasons under Brady Hoke are hardly what many students hoped for.

Michigan Football Final Record
Season Record Winning Percentage
2008 3-9 0.250
2009 5-7 0.417
2010 7-6 0.538
2011 11-2 0.846
2012 8-5 0.615
2013 7-6 0.538
6 Year Total 41-35 0.539

Michigan Athletic Department

But the problem goes beyond Michigan. According to an article in the Tuscaloosa News, even Alabama struggled with student attendance during the 2012 season:

A total of 18,683 student tickets of an allocated 109,900 went unused over the course of seven home games, and at least 5 percent of student tickets went unused in every game, topping out at 58 percent for the Western Carolina game.

The usual litany of explanations for poor Michigan student attendance—poor weather, bad team, unpopular game times—don't apply to Alabama, which won the national championship that season.

There is a silver lining for schools with declining student attendance: The seats allocated for students are worth more when sold to the general public. Michigan has already offered season ticket holders the option to purchase additional seats (along with the required seat licenses) and offered ticket plans to the general public.

Tony Ding/Associated Press

Michigan Stadium is a revenue-generating machine. New additions include private suites for top donors and outdoor club seats for fans who want a more comfortable game experience. Two huge high definition screens look down on season ticket holders who all pay annual seat licenses for the privilege of maintaining their seats.

But as the fans in the stadium age, will they be replaced by younger alumni, many of whom passed on attending games as students?

Attending football games used to be a priority for many students, but the culture of watching games has changed.

Hundreds of cable channels and dedicated networks ensure that practically every game is available in HDTV quality. Social media has transformed the game-day experience from a passive activity to one where fans can interact with hundreds or thousands of others in near real time.

Students are the proverbial canary in the coal mine. 

Administrators who believe that winning will solve the student attendance problem are ignoring the cultural shift that's taking place among the next generation of football fans.

Michigan and other traditional football powers need to offer fans a compelling reason to attend games, or the next renovation at the Big House might be a downsizing.


Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article were obtained via press conferences or in person.

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