You probably remember the first time the University of Michigan played Appalachian State, though Michigan fans would prefer you didn’t. It was the opening weekend of the 2007 season, and Appalachian State won 34–32 in what may have been the biggest college football upset ever and the lowest moment in the 135-year history of the Wolverines program. The most prominent Michigan fan site, MGoBlog, refers to the game as “The Horror.”
You’d think that Michigan would want to eradicate every reminder that this game ever happened. Instead, at noon this Saturday on ESPN2, the Wolverines will give the world an occasion to remember that day of epic shame. Per a scheduling decision made by their athletic director, Dave Brandon, three years ago—which is to say, a decision made voluntarily rather than as a contractual obligation related to the original 2007 game—Michigan will once again open its season against the Appalachian State Mountaineers.
There is little upside here for Michigan. If they win, all they’ve done is beat an overmatched opponent (the Wolverines are 35-point favorites). And if they lose, they should just shut the whole program down.
Michigan fans have reacted to this situation, quite reasonably, by trying to pretend it isn’t happening. John U. Bacon, author of Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football and a longtime Michigan observer, says, “I have not been able to find five fans who are excited about this rematch.” Ticket sales have been abysmal. “I wouldn’t go to this game if I lived in the locker room,” wrote one recent poster on MGoBlog, where the game is called “The Horror II.” The Big House has hosted 251 consecutive contests in which the paid attendance was greater than 100,000, and breaking that streak would be a PR fiasco. But seats are still available on the team’s official site, on StubHub (for as little as $35, $20 less than face value), and on the bargain site LivingSocial. The LivingSocial deal includes a hot dog.
Why is this game happening? And who, Michigan fans (like me) might be asking, can we blame? The answer, most directly, is Brandon, the athletic director. But he is only a creature of a larger system created by, among others, the NCAA, television networks, the SEC, Chick-fil-A, and Nike. Those parties are responsible for college football’s proliferation of stunt marketing and contrived event games, trends that have reached their apotheosis/nadir in this rematch made in hell.
College football is perpetually expanding. The December-January bowl season continues to grow—there are now 39 bowls (hello, Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl!), which means that more than 60 percent of the 128 top-division teams will play in one of them. Meanwhile, the Big Ten, Pac-12, and ACC have all followed the lead of the SEC and instituted conference championship games, which are played at neutral-site NFL stadiums.
At the same time, neutral-site regular-season games—heavily sponsored and promoted pseudo-bowls that are played earlier in the year—are becoming much more common and more ridiculous. The Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game was launched in 2008, taking advantage of the NCAA’s 2005 decision to let teams play 12 regular-season games instead of 11. This year there are two Chick-fil-A games, which will be played this Thursday and Saturday, both in the Georgia Dome. Since 2009, what is now called AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas (better known as Jerry World) has hosted the Cowboys Classic, also on the season’s first weekend. Notre Dame played a game in 2012 in Ireland. This year the Fighting Irish will compete in New York’s College Classic (it’s in New Jersey) against Syracuse on Sept. 27, while Ireland will host the inaugural Croke Park Classic between Penn State and the University of Central Florida. Texas athletic director Steve Patterson has suggested that the Longhorns might play a football game in Dubai.
These games, for their participants, are as much about marketing exposure as they are about money. Sports Business Journal reported that Michigan and Alabama made $4.7 million each to play in Jerry World in 2012—a little less than the $5 million or so that each team might have expected to earn by playing a home game. These special events, though, are an occasion for special-event merchandising, with teams (like Michigan) one-upping each other with extravagant uniform reboots and one-off jerseys. It’s a trend highlighted by the outfits Nike makes for the Oregon Ducks, but many other schools, both nouveau riche and traditional powers, have partaken. While merchandising is a not-insignificant source of revenue for college teams, unveiling new uniforms is also seen as a crucial way to build up a national image.
Brandon was named Michigan’s athletic director in 2010 and immediately launched himself into college football’s image-building arms race. His previous job was as CEO of Domino’s, and he was with the company when it rolled out a new pizza recipe by admitting that its old recipe was not very good. “I’m kind of a marketing guy,” Brandon has said, and since he’s come on board, Michigan has launched itself into the sport’s Limited Edition This, Inaugural That era. In 2012, Michigan played the aforementioned Jerry World opener and in 2011 hosted its first-ever night game.* The school started outfitting its players in special-edition unis and is planning to begin the 2015 season by playing on a Thursday for the first time ever.
It’s in this context—in which the best thing a college football team can do is to get people talking—that scheduling an Appalachian State rematch makes sense. Michigan already had a tough nonconference game against Notre Dame on the 2014 schedule, and didn’t want to make things too hard on itself by playing another big-time opponent. It could’ve played a low-profile local school—Central Michigan, say—and picked up an easy win that would’ve gotten minimal play on SportsCenter. Or it could make a mini-splash, reschedule Appalachian State, and grab itself a piece of opening-week national attention.
For Brandon and his equivalents at other universities, that choice is an easy one. By his own admission, Brandon says that he tries to schedule games that will start conversations. And it’s hard to say that he’s entirely misguided. Michigan’s athletic department is making an unprecedented amount of money despite a half-decade’s worth of disappointing on-field showings by its football team. Oregon’s uniforms are constantly cited as one of the reasons elite recruits have come to favor what was previously a middling program. The SEC—the first conference to hold a championship game and the most frequent participant in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff—is the country’s most dominant league. When I asked Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, who coached in the Big Ten and the SEC, about event games, he pointed out that there are also competitive reasons to play in them. A win in a hyped-up early season contest can boost a team’s reputation with the notoriously fickle individuals who help decide which teams will play for the national championship. “It’s a lasting impression when you play a big game in September,” he said.
But there’s some evidence that we’ve come to an inflection point. Exhibit A is the University of Michigan—the most successful college football team of all time—scheduling a stunt game that annoys its own fans, then trying to persuade them to attend that game by giving out hot dogs. College football is suffering a widespread attendance malaise, even in the SEC, and it’s been noted that lackluster home schedules are partly to blame—a problem exacerbated by the fact that so many prime matchups, from Cowboys Classics to conference title games, are played on distant NFL fields. College football, more than any other sport, is about the identification between fans, teams, and places, and stunt games meant to catch the eyes of a national audience at best ignore and at worst corrode that connection.
John U. Bacon discussed this phenomenon earlier this year in two pieces about “how to save the college football game experience.” Bacon characterizes college football stadiums as urban versions of national parks and college fans as quasi-religious believers rather than customers. Those kinds of fans, he realizes, don’t need another hype-driven football league that is calibrated for the casual national consumer. We already have one of those, and it has better players and easier-to-understand fantasy leagues. Instead, he recommends that athletic directors make their stadiums more like, well, national parks or churches: no frills, with low ticket prices, no advertising, less recorded rock music, and fewer TV-timeout interruptions. Just football, a marching band, and the wild crowd—the kind of half-Zen, half-madness stadium experience that might sacrifice some short-term revenue but builds the kind of long-term loyalty that institutions like Michigan should be looking for.
Michigan’s athletic department seems to have been taken by surprise by the reaction to the Appalachian State game. When I asked the university’s athletic press office for an explanation for the rematch, the response I received (under Dave Brandon’s name) pointed out that Michigan’s players were excited to get the season started and that “coaches and players of both teams have all changed since the first match-up back in 2007.” The insinuation, perhaps, being: Why are you guys getting so worked up about this fun idea? The players don’t care—and we’re not reminding any of them of the upset—so why should you?
It’s a fair point—but, as a Michigan fan myself, I understand why people are upset. Where I grew up, a few hours from Ann Arbor, Michigan Stadium had mythic stature, and those lucky enough to see it were made to tell their tales in detail when they returned: the drum major emerging from the tunnel minutes before game time to the roar of the student section, the ominous chant of the crowd on third down, the intricate rules of the multipart wave. I don’t remember anyone ever sitting at a junior-high cafeteria table explaining breathlessly that, after years of waiting for the chance, they’d been to Ann Arbor and seen narratives leveraged to create social media opportunities for increasing national brand equity. But even without narrative leveraging, I was hooked. And, as it happens, I’ve gone on to spend quite a bit of money on Michigan tickets and merchandise over the years.
So regardless of how I feel at having my commitment manipulated for marketing points, I’ll be watching and holding my breath until at least 3 p.m. this Saturday—whereupon I will start holding it again, because in 2016 the Colorado Buffaloes are coming to Ann Arbor. In 1994, Kordell Stewart and Colorado beat the Wolverines on a heartbreaking Hail Mary, another Michigan Stadium nightmare-highlight that will doubtless be replayed tens of thousands of times before and during the game.* It’s sure to start a lot of conversations.
Correction, Aug. 26, 2014: This piece originally stated that Michigan played its first night game in 2012. The team’s first night game was in 2011. (Return to the corrected sentence.) The piece also stated that 1994 was the last year Colorado played in Ann Arbor. Colorado visited Ann Arbor in 1997 as well.