Michigan ticket policy, skywriting stunt shameful

If you’re a University of Michigan student who feels extorted by the new ticket plan for men’s basketball, there’s good news for you.

Some of the money you paid for season tickets — which don’t even guarantee you seats for all the games — went for something very important.

No, not a scouting report on the Akron football team.

It turns out that Michigan paid for the infamous “Go Blue” skywriting over Michigan State University’s Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich., last weekend.

David Ablauf, Michigan’s associate athletic director, confirmed that the athletic department hired a skywriter to produce the message over lower Michigan, but insisted that only one location was specifically targeted.

“We asked them to blanket southeast Michigan, focusing on Michigan Stadium, of course, and then fly over the arteries leading toward Ann Arbor,” Ablauf said.

Michigan has hired Suzanne Asbury-Oliver’s company for skywriting services before, and she’s quoted by MLive.com as saying she was hired to work in East Lansing.

“We just did what we were hired to do,” Asbury-Oliver told MLive.com, adding that Michigan had asked her not to disclose the exact cost of the contract. “It’s a multi-thousand dollar job.”

Ablauf claimed that Asbury-Oliver was misquoted.

“I’ve talked to her this morning, and I think the reporter on that story heard what he wanted to hear,” Ablauf said. “She tried to explain to him that those planes are flying 10,000 feet high, and when they spell out ‘Go Blue,’ it covers one mile by five miles.

“You can be 20 miles away and think it is right over your house.”

According to Abluaf, the “Go Blue” over Spartan Stadium was more of an optical illusion, caused by size and winds.

“They were over I-96 at one point, but down by Pinckney (about 50 miles southeast of East Lansing),” he said. “I can’t be 100 percent sure of that, but that’s the area where I believe they were working.”

Asbury-Oliver, however, confirmed to the Detroit Free Press that she was specifically asked to hit the Lansing area on Saturday morning.

Whatever happened, the messages were clearly visible over the Michigan State campus, as seen in many videos and pictures shot by tailgaters and people inside Spartan Stadium.

The skywriting led to a charity drive started by Scott Westerman, executive director of the Michigan State Alumni Association. The drive, aimed at getting donations for ovarian-cancer research, had raised $27,000 as of Thursday.

Westerman issued a challenge to Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon on Thursday afternoon, asking him to donate “the equivalent of what they are paying their skywriters this season.”

Of course, Michigan’s athletic department has some money to burn on skywriting stunts, thanks to the excess cash they’ve raked in with their new season-ticket plan for the student section at the men’s basketball games. They announced this week that they had sold a school-record 4,500 season tickets to students, bringing in a cool $900,000 in revenue.

The only problem is, The Crisler Center’s student section has 3,000 seats. That means, instead of a normal season ticket, where you can pick and choose the games you want to see, Michigan has turned the process into a combination of “The Hunger Games” and “Thunderdome.” The last 3,000 students standing after a season-long competition will get tickets to the Michigan State game on Feb. 23.

Michigan could have done what Indiana does and sold partial-season tickets. Students at IU don’t get to see every game, but they know what they’re getting and can earn better games the following season by showing up and moving along in their academic career.

Instead, the Wolverines chose an option that puts almost a million dollars in their pockets, even though they only have $600,000 of seats. To run the system, they came up with a “pod” process that is so complicated, they had to dedicate an entire web page to explaining it.

On paper, the plan is designed to boost the student section’s poor attendance. Selling 4,500 seats a game for a 3,000-seat section should do that.

There are penalties for students who don’t make it to games, even exhibition games against Wayne State and Concordia or games held during campus breaks. Miss enough games, you not only lose your tickets going forward, you won’t get a refund.

“At that point, it is treated just like skipping games,” Ablauf said. “You lose your money if you skip a game, and this is the same thing.”

Michigan, like every NCAA school, stresses that its athletes are students first and — despite the billions of dollars pouring in from corporate sponsors and television networks — college sports is a amateur campus activity designed for the students.

That hasn’t been true for over 100 years — Fielding Yost was accused of fielding professional players in 1905 — but the pretense continues. Call players an athlete, and you’ll quickly be reminded that they’re “student-athletes.” The “purity” of college sports is the reason the NCAA exists.

Pull off a cash grab that swindles nonathletic students out of hundreds of thousands of dollars — Michigan has promised at least $300,000 in tickets they can’t possibly honor — and the NCAA won’t say a thing … even if you use part of the money for something as petty as writing cheer-leading slogans in the sky that might float near your rival’s stadium.