by Mike Coffey
Let’s face it, in my lexicon, “excellence” is to “Ann Arbor” as “taste” is to “Kardashian”. Unless we’re talking about things like this or this or this, of course … one must recognize facts when they’re presented, after all.
But today my hat must tip, because this morning I read an article in the Ann Arbor Chronicle by John Bacon chronicling the decline in the fan experience at Michigan Stadium. Mr. Bacon has put more fine a point on the issue than anyone I’ve read, and what disturbs me the most about the article is if you replace the Michigan references with their Notre Dame analogues, chances are in a couple years a non-captive press would be writing something similar about gameday in South Bend.
The parallels between what Bacon wrote and what’s happened (or will be happening) at Notre Dame are distressing. PSL’s for season ticket holders? Done. New student ticket policies breaking down the class camaraderie? Check. Glitzy spectacle taking the place of timeless experience? Yup. Anything that doesn’t move (and some things that do) being slapped with a price tag? Been there. Advertisements for “fan enhancement” on a blaring video screen? It’s coming. As Bacon puts it, “the program had always followed basic business practices … but had never been run strictly as a business, until now.”
The two key paragraphs are here:
Is that really what Michigan is all about? Fly-overs, blaring rock music, and Beyonce? Beyonce is to Michigan football what Bo Schembechler is to – well, Beyonce. No, Michigan is all about lifelong fans who’ve been coming together for decades to leave a bit of the modern world behind – and the incessant marketing that comes with it – and share an authentic experience fueled by the passion of the team, the band and the students. That’s it.
After a friend of mine took his kids to a game, he told me, “Michigan athletics used to feel like something we shared. Now it’s something they hoard. Anything of value they put a price tag on. Anything that appeals to anyone is kept locked away – literally, in some cases – and only brought out if you pay for it. And what’s been permanently banished is any sense of generosity.”
Older fans are sometimes criticized for their fear of change. But as we often respond, change for its own sake isn’t necessarily a good thing. The “authentic experience fueled by the passion of the team, the band and the students” is so easily trampled underfoot by those obsessed with bringing the best of their home-watching experience to Notre Dame Stadium. Trouble is, those two experience were never intended to be merged, and attempting to do so devalues both.
I’m not going to claim Notre Dame has always eschewed making a buck in the interest of preserving a unique experience for its fans — that would be foolish. The Congregatio a Sancta Cruce are called the “Cash, Strictly Cash” for a reason. Bricks and seats and goldleaf have been sold or auctioned off for long and long and no doubt reside in places of honor in the homes of ND fans and alums, including (in the interest of full disclosure) the one in which I grew up.
But while there was always a distasteful shimmer around the practice, the tawdriness was never obvious. There was a subtlety. The things that were sold truly were meaningful, either in a general or particular sense — part of a building that had stood on campus for decades, a bench seat someone actually had sat in for years as a season ticket holder. Now that tawdriness stands out like a gold lamé dress at a Confirmation, culminating in the sale of three-week-old grass that allegedly couldn’t grow packaged as Hallowed Ground.
Yes, Rockne was an innovator. But I’d like to think he’d have enough class to recognize this crap for what it is.
Slowly but surely, a tacky veneer is being wrapped around what Notre Dame football has been, ostensibly to “enhance the fan experience” and/or serve as a revenue enhancement. But we’re getting evidence of where this road leads from another elite program that has progressed further down it than we have. Notre Dame ignores this evidence at its own peril.