Fans flock to the Big House to get first glimpses of renovated Michigan Stadium
Lon Horwedel | AnnArbor.com
For the better part of the past three years, Marilyn Donnelly and her husband watched the Michigan Stadium construction from afar.
For the first 12 months of the $226 million renovation project, the Donnellys dealt with inconvenient construction noise and congestion along Main Street. From their home near I-94, they watched the face of the stadium change, likening it to the coliseum in Rome and joking about when the gladiators and lions would arrive.
On Wednesday, they were among an estimated 15,000 visitors who stepped inside the Michigan Stadium gates. Visitors, some of which arrived as early as 6 a.m., positioned themselves in the new luxury suites and club seating.
"It's impressive, Marilyn Donnelly said. "We were just very curious and knew this would be our one chance to come in and take a look. It's just kind of fun to come and see what happened."
The stadium will open for its 83rd season Sept. 4 for Michigan's season-opener against Connecticut with a new capacity of 109,901. The suites - which come with a yearly price tag of up to $85,000 each - again propels Michigan Stadium to being the nation's largest venue, reclaiming the title from Penn State's Beaver Stadium.
Lon Horwedel | AnnArbor.com
With the project complete on time and on budget, Michigan has a new crown jewel to show off, marking a day Brandon has looked forward to from the beginning.
"One of the things we wanted to do was to make sure we kept the Big House the Big House," Brandon said Wednesday. "We wanted it to have the same feel, but yet, we were going to erect these new structures and add these new elements that weren't there before.
"But you walk in there, and it's still The Big House, and I'm really pleased about that."
As of Wednesday, 61 of the stadium's 81 luxury suites have been sold as have nearly 80 percent of the 2,952 club seats. While its unlikely the new seating will reach capacity by the start of the season, the university has sold enough to cover the costs of the renovations. Brandon said the university is "cash ahead" as the revenue generated by the sale of the luxury seats surpasses the debt load for the stadium improvements.
At full capacity, Brandon said the athletic department will generate an additional $4.5 million to $5 million in incremental revenue. Brandon said the university won't consider selling empty club and luxury suite seating on a game-by-game basis, but through events like Wednesday's, he hoped to see sales continue.
"When we can get people up there to see what that experience is all about is the greatest marketing tool that we have," Brandon said.
Brandon said the renovations aren't likely to be the last improvements. With a stadium that now boasts another level of seating along with wider aisles, more restrooms and concessions areas, Brandon said the university will look to improve the stadium's scoreboard.
As fans saw on Wednesday, the renovations haven't taken away from the stadium's traditional feel. Seeing the stadium's old-school feel watered down was a concern for Pat and Bill Berlin, who graduated from Michigan in the late 1950s.
Since then, they've maintained season tickets in Section 16, Row 72. After touring the stadium Wednesday, the couple is reassured that what they have always loved about Michigan football is intact.
"They didn't destroy the stadium - they really enhanced it," Pat Berlin said. "It's beautiful."
Jeff Arnold covers sports for AnnArbor.com and can be reached at (734) 623-2554 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeffreyparnold.