Fully revamped Michigan Stadium opens for business on Saturday
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
He envisioned the 80-year-old home of the Michigan football team with towers that stood 85 feet taller than the stadium’s concourses. The stadium blueprints included 82 luxury suites and 2,300 club seats that would generate enough revenue to cover the bill for the remaining improvements.
Traditionalists protested, arguing the original version of Fielding H. Yost’s masterpiece was being trampled. Even some of Martin’s closest friends suggested he was crazy for tinkering with one of college football’s most treasured venues.
“If I was going down,” Martin said, “I was going to go down in flames.”
The Wolverines open the season in their renovated home Saturday with a 3:30 p.m. game against Connecticut. Saturday also is Martin’s final day as a university employee.
From the start, Martin’s goal was to improve the game-day experience for the nearly 110,000 fans who will pass through the stadium’s turnstiles.
For years, Michigan Stadium had been woefully out of date. It didn’t meet building codes nor did it lawfully accommodate the stadium’s physically disabled visitors. The concourses and aisles were too narrow to allow traffic to move freely and there weren’t enough restrooms or concession stands.
When Martin took over Michigan’s athletic department in 2000, he understood Michigan Stadium was a major concern. Martin, who worked in development prior to coming to the university, knew he was entering dangerous territory.
Since Yost built the stadium in 1927, only minor improvements had been made, twice adding seats to the bowl while changing the playing surface on numerous occasions.
Michigan’s Board of Regents needed three votes before approving Yost’s building plans, a fact Martin considered as he moved forward. The stadium, Martin knew, had to include modern amenities, but it also had to honor Michigan’s traditional past.
Design would be a major challenge. Over time, Martin and his team went through 10 sets of plans.
By 2006, he found a winner. Using the architectural building blocks found in the university’s intramural building and hockey arena, the new Michigan Stadium took shape.
The two towers that would house the stadium’s luxury seating would be angled in to help trap noise inside the stadium. The number of women’s toilets increased by 124 percent, the men’s by 50. The concourses would be wider to allow for better traffic flow and enough handicapped seating would be included to meet federal laws.
Along the concourses, 83 plaques would be hung, each bearing the name of a different Michigan county.
But Martin knew he would have to win people over. He’d have to convince the regents that tackling the project all at once made the most sense. He had to change the minds of purists who believed to overhauling the stadium was stripping of its of its integrity.
“Change comes really hard for a lot of people - particularly with something they love,” Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said Monday. “People revere that stadium, and the vast majority of people who were concerned were concerned because they love place.”
Among the biggest opponents was John Pollack, a 44-year-old former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. Pollack believed the university could improve the stadium without adding premium seating. He formed a group, “Save the Big House,” which countered the university’s design by saying it could finance the renovations by adding 15 rows of bleacher seating rather than adding the luxury seating.
The plan coincided with Yost’s dreams to add a second deck onto the stadium that would take the venue’s seating capacity to 125,000. Despite the complaints from Pollack's group, the university didn't break stride, continuing a project Pollack still has issues with.
"I think the way the stadium has been altered is a real shame,” Pollack said Tuesday. “What happened was that Michigan Stadium was a unique stadium. With the renovation, it looks pretty much like every other stadium in the country."
Martin acknowledged last week that he and his team didn’t do a good enough job educating the public that the massive renovation project was about more than luxury seating. Had the suites and club seating not been built, Martin said the university would have been forced to add a $15 surcharge per ticket for the next 30 years.
Instead, the revenue generated by suites (65 of which have been committed to for the next three seasons) and the club seating (100 percent of which has been sold for this season) will cover the cost of the rest of the improvements.
Because the majority of the luxury seating is sold, Martin said the project is “beyond break even,” complete without requiring tax dollars or university resources. In contrast, Minnesota’s $288 million, 50,000-seat stadium was funded by selling naming rights, advertising and $137.2 million worth of state dollars.
Martin said he knew from the start that funding the renovations would not be a problem. But he also realized the project had to be billed as much more than just luxury seating.
“We didn’t renovate Michigan Stadium to build 5,000 premium seats,” Martin said. “That was a means to an end. By building 5,000 premium seats, the revenue paid to fix the bowl for everyone else.”
In addition to the revenue that comes from the seating, Brandon said it also caters to many of the football program’s season ticket holders. Before construction began in November 2007, Brandon and other regents traveled to Ohio State’s Ohio Stadium in Columbus and Penn State’s Beaver Stadium in State College.
The tour cemented the fact that Michigan Stadium needed to be improved. It also showed Brandon the need for luxury seating. Brandon and his fellow regents wanted to give season-ticket holders options ranging from chair-back club seating that ranged in price from $2,500 to $4,000 a year to the suites, which come with an annual price tag of up to $85,000 per season.
“We knew we needed to be in that game,” Brandon said.
Perhaps most importantly, the renovation would add seating to the stadium, which dipped in seating capacity during the three-year construction project. During that time, Penn State’s Beaver Stadium took the lead in stadium seating, boasting 107,282 seats. With Michigan Stadium’s construction complete, the venue includes 109, 901 seats, a fact both Martin and Brandon said matters.
“The Big House has to be the Big House,” Brandon said.
Martin’s plan also called for the Big House to be the loud house. The new design will make the stadium 30 percent louder, Brandon said this summer.
In addition, Big Ten athletic directors approved a plan this summer that allowed marching bands to be amplified. Michigan director of bands Michael Haithcock said the technology should distribute the sound of the marching band evenly to keep it from sounding “electronic or canned”.
The excitement of Saturday’s stadium rededication isn’t limited to university officials or players. Although Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez is focused more on Connecticut to the pageantry that will be part of Saturday’s season-opener, he and his players understand the environment will be different.
Sophomore wide receiver Roy Roundtree said Monday that emerging from the tunnel and onto the field is among his favorite Michigan traditions.
Come Saturday, though, he expects the experience to be even better.
“When you see it now, you can’t believe the stadium is looking like this,” Roundtree said. “We know on Saturday, we’re going to have goose bumps because we know when we come in there, it’s going to be packed and it’s going to be loud.”
Saturday’s rededication will include a pre-game ribbon-cutting ceremony, signifying the completion of the project. Brandon said in time, more improvements -- including replacing the stadium’s scoreboards -- could be made. Future enhancements could also bring more end zone seating.
Brandon said he’s proud of the finished project, which he considers up-to-date and timeless. Martin will walk through the stadium on his final day, eager to see it filled to capacity.
He said since construction began, the initial complaints over design have dwindled to being non-existent, a sign he believes fans appreciate the blend of modern amenities and attention to the stadium’s historical significance.
“It was so important that every fan get a better game day experience and that they said, ‘Wow, am I proud of this.’” Martin said. “The Big House is still The Big House, and it’s a better house.”
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.