Last year was a special season. One that managed to pump a breath of fresh air into a basketball program that couldn’t find its way back after a decade of misery. Breaking the seemingly never ending NCAA tournament drought this year, when no more than an NIT berth was expected, made for a one of the most enjoyable and refreshing basketball seasons in recent history. In just one year the opinion of the basketball team on campus has gone from apathy and laughter to excitement.
The Achilles heel of this program has always been the ability to take the next step. An NIT championship in 2004 was followed by a disappointing season rather than an NCAA tournament berth. A big win over Illinois in 2006 that might have finally pushed Michigan to the NCAA tournament was followed by disappointing losses to Indiana and Minnesota. It’s been a vicious cycle and Michigan finally managed to break this cycle on the court last year.
Marquee wins, a big road win, and most of all an NCAA tournament win. This program didn’t just take a step forward last year — it ran half way up the stairwell. The key is continuing to move forward rather than staying in the same spot or, even worse, moving backwards.
On the court this team looks prepared to take the next step. In terms of production they lose only 17% of their scoring, 29% of their minutes, and 15% of their rebounding. They return their two All-Big Ten performers and bring in several promising freshmen. The incoming class includes a pair of top 150 guards and three big men (including Cronin) and basketball wise that’s more than enough to generate a little bit of pre-season buzz.
Off the court, the program is still taking baby steps. Rome wasn’t built in a week and it takes more than one season to build a program. Last year’s success won’t build a program but it will provide some opportunities. There is momentum and it’s important that the athletic department use it to their advantage. There are a number of things that can be done over the next few years to allow this program to continue to step up.
Last year Michigan sold around 420 student tickets, this marked the end of a steady decline in ticket sales since 2003 and 2004 when an anonymous donor paid for a most students to attend games for free. This woefully low number left the athletic department in a bind – they hadn’t sold enough tickets to fill the 540 bleacher seats on any given day.
2003 and 2004 were the anonymous donor years. 2005 and 2006 are estimated. 2009 is incomplete at this time (no freshmen or fall sales) The rest of the numbers are taken from various newspaper articles.
The athletic department’s solution was to open the doors for free. Students who didn’t purchase tickets would be able to get in free to every game besides Duke, Michigan State, and Ohio State. For the students that had already purchased tickets, the athletic department set up an incentive system which provided them with up to $30 in M-Den gift-cards and a Maize Rage hooded sweatshirt if they attended all of the games. Economically this plan seems to work: charge the students who are willing to pay and let the rest in for free, maximize producer surplus through price discrimination.
The plan seemed to work, but I have a hard time praising anyone for increased attendance to anyone other then the fourteen kids who beat Duke and UCLA. The early season victory over UCLA expanded the bandwagon ten-fold and there seemed to always be students who snuck their way into the bleachers or were seated dutifully near the top of the upper bowl who got in with free tickets. Give credit to the athletic department though, they created a plan that made it easy for people to jump on the bandwagon.
This year Michigan has already sold 1,369 tickets even when tickets are still on sale and freshmen haven’t even purchased them yet. For the first time ever, students could simply check a box (and pay $100) to buy basketball tickets along with their football ticket order. This was a huge step and the timing worked out perfectly – football tickets went on sale on the heels of Michigan’s NCAA run.
Student tickets will also operate on a first come first serve basis from now on. The updated student ticket policy explains the system like this (emphasis is mine):
GENERAL ADMISSION SEATING: Except for pre-determined premium games (i.e., Michigan State, Ohio State, etc.) students will have one seating option — GENERAL ADMISSION SEATING. Each student will receive one voucher for each game in the student season package. Upon presenting a valid M-card, this voucher will be exchanged at Crisler Arena’s Gate E before each game on a first-come first served basis for a ticket in the bleachers (540 seats), then section 19 behind the pep band (93 seats) and then in the upper level gold. Validation may be required for use by a non-student.
PREMIUM GAMES: For the premium games, students who have attended all of the games prior to the premium game will receive an assigned ticket in the bleachers or section 19. Those attending all such games except one will have the next priority, those attending all games except two will have the next priority and so on until the tickets in the bleachers and section 19 have been fully allocated. If a sufficient number of student seats are not available to a priority group, priority will be based on random selection. The remaining students will receive an assigned seat in the upper level gold. The Athletic Department intends to provide other incentives for attending Michigan basketball games.
Seniors that have purchased tickets for the last three seasons are understandably a bit upset by this new policy. It seems a bit unfortunate that someone could go to so many games throughout some of the darker times of Michigan basketball and not be guaranteed a bleacher seat. I think the argument is garbage – tough it out and get to the game as early as you’ve got to get there. For years the Maize Rage has tried to get stud
ents to the game early and this will definitely make that happen.
The new policy is a good one and it’s a start toward a sort of priority program like other schools use. I have seen a little bit of criticism for the premium game limitation to "prevent camping out", I guess that’s understandable but I think having a priority system for premium games will reward the most dedicated fans and also push more people to the lower-tier games.
Getting the fans in the seats is the first step and a student ticket sales number that could reach as high as 2,000 is certainly encouraging. However with only 540 seats in the main bleacher section and another 93 behind the band that’s only 633 seats in the lower bowl – most likely about a third of the total student ticket holders.
That’s just not good enough. You can’t build a competent student section when it is spread out in three sections. The Athletic Department has to expand the main student section. Physically expanding the bleachers at this point is probably out of the question but there is no reason that they can’t expand into more of the blue seats.
The seating chart is a little off, but right now the student section is the first 12 or so rows in sections 50, 2, 3, 6, and 9. Extending the section upwards (pictured) seems unlikely because I would imagine a majority of those seats are included in pricey season ticket packages. Extending it to the right through sections 10, 13, and 16 toward section 19 where the band is located seems more likely. I don’t think there are many season ticket holders in these sections and even if there are, it isn’t necessarily prime real estate. The student section would expand around behind the away team’s second half basket and students would be connected in a single group.
I don’t know how the numbers work out but with so many student tickets already purchased, the athletic department has plenty of time and information to actually implement a solution before the season. However, I won’t hold my breath this is the same athletic department and ticket office that managed to give students the handicap seats at the NCAA tournament, the furthest seats from the action in Kansas City.
Beyond an expansion of the student section there are plenty of other steps, big and small, that the athletic department can take.
- Midnight Madness: These types of events can come off as cheesy but they can also be a great time. I would have never suggested one in recent years because of the lack of fan support but this year I’m convinced that it could work. I was shocked at the turnout for the Selection Sunday Party and that was only a couple days notice. If there’s ever a year – this is it. A successful midnight madness is also a great recruiting tool.
- Scheduling: UConn doesn’t return to Crisler until 2010 and it’s important that Michigan bring in a big time opponent in the non-conference season. UCLA is out of the question because Howland wants no part of Beilein. Michigan already looks to have a tough schedule with the Old Spice tournament, Duke road trip, and Boston College in the challenge but adding one more marquee home game would be perfect. Luckily, it sounds like this is going to get it done and Crisler will be rocking for what should be a chance at a top-5 team.
- Continue to Improve Game-Day Atmosphere: Katy Jackson did a great job of tweaking a few things here and there this year to bring a little more energy to Crisler. She should have more resources this year with more people in the seats, and continued support.
- More Promotions: It’s all about getting fans in the seats. Beyond students, I’d like to see more local promotions. Free tickets for local school kids during holiday breaks (typically some of the weaker crowds) is one idea off the top of my head.
Building a program is a subject that I want to revisit over the summer. There are more issues than student tickets involved but this post got far too long. Facilities are one a huge issue, but yet another that’s being addressed.