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.
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