Michigan Stadium, known better as “The Big House” is the largest stadium in the US with the capacity to host around 110,000 people. It’s the residence of the University of Michigan football team. Michigan is truly one of the greatest universities in the country. Amazing academics, great college town, and fantastic sports make for a perfect combination. But there is trouble in Ann Arbor.
Michigan football has been a bit disappointing lately. And when you have 100k seats to fill that can be a challenge. The blame is being passed around from too much commercialism to the overall poor performance of the football program. These both make sense. Michigan has more wins than any football team in history. But that’s a bit of a funky statistic since the team has existed since 1879. Just by sheer length of history they have these wins. Most of them haven’t come lately. And with such a well recognized brand and massive alumni network, over-commercialization is always a risk. Striking that balance between performance and capitalizing on it is a challenge for any school with a major sports program.
The discussion of what’s wrong at Michigan is best summarized in this article on Deadspin. But there are a couple of other factors at play that aren’t really being discussed.
Michigan football is partially a victim of the struggles of Michigan’s economy. Despite being a premier academic institution, the state of Michigan has been trying to find a 21st century identity after manufacturing’s decline. This can likely mean that alums and fans of Michigan may not be staying within driving distance of the school for a game. You can see that in the population growth (or shrinkage) of the state compared to the US overall. It’s hard to keep butts in the seats of the fans are spread all over the country.
Likewise, there are demographics working against Michigan. College sports fans are both old and white. While these are dominate demographics they aren’t exactly on the rise. All sports are interested in touching new audiences (just look at what the NFL has done with women), and college sports will not look so great moving forward with the old white demo. It’s no surprise then that attendance at college games is down this year, with only a few exceptions.
So Michigan has some issues unique to them and others facing the college game as a whole. It’s true that a winning team can solve most problems, but the headwinds are getting stronger.