One of the more interesting things about covering Big Ten football is seeing how the league and its members balance tradition and history with the need to grow brands and keep up with national trends. Whether it's expansion, instant replay, the addition of division play and a championship game, a new TV network or simply more football in prime time, the Big Ten and its schools are in a historic period of change.
Michigan is a particularly fascinating case study, particularly since Dave Brandon took over as athletic director in March 2010. Brandon has roots in the Michigan tradition as a former football player under Bo Schembechler. He also returned to his alma mater from the business world and saw a brand that, despite its historical significance, needed upgrades.
Brandon made branding a priority from the start and has facilitated several changes.
Michigan now has lights at the Big House. The Wolverines will play their first night game Sept. 10 against Notre Dame -- in throwback jerseys, no less. They will open the 2012 season against Alabama at JerryWorld in Texas. New LED video boards are being installed at Michigan Stadium.
These moves wouldn't be notable at many programs, but they are at Michigan, which hadn't exactly been a beacon for change.
I recently caught up with Brandon to discuss the Michigan brand and his vision for the future.
What was your impression of the Michigan brand when you arrived as AD?
Dave Brandon: The Block M brand has always stood for excellence. It's a brand that is connected with the history and tradition of college football. It's the oldest football program, it's the winningest football program. It's got a lot of iconic characteristics in terms of the Big House and the winged helmet and legendary coaches and many championships. The expectations around the brand are always high.
As I came in and did my review, I think our brand had received some short-term hits that were a result of football being such an important brand builder for us. We'd had two consecutive years of poor performance, not being competitive in our conference, not going to a bowl game. We had the NCAA violations and all of the negative ramifications of being involved in investigations and allegations. Certainly that was detrimental. And across the board, one of the measures is our performance in the Director's Cup. We had fallen to 26th that previous year, which was a real low point.
So it felt to me like even though we continue to have a strong brand, in the near term we had slid back a little bit. We're working really hard to find ways to pull ourselves out of that.
What were some of the ways you felt the brand needed to be enhanced?
DB: Clearly, Michigan athletics cannot be successful if football doesn't lead our success. It's our revenue generator, it's so much connected with how the brand is perceived, and clearly we've made a lot of changes and investments in our football program, in hopes of getting it back to a level where it's highly competitive in the Big Ten and nationally. We've made significant investments in facilities, significant investments in talent at the coaching level, made some changes at the coaching level, and we're working really hard in recruiting.
When you do things like the first night game or throwback uniforms, how did you approach ideas that were different from the way Michigan has operated?
DB: They're clearly designed to help us re-establish Michigan as a prominent program in the national picture. Putting lights up in Michigan Stadium has allowed us to schedule the first night game in 132 years. To schedule the first neutral-venue game down in Texas, those are all kinds of things I really saw as important to pump some energy and create some excitement and bring Michigan back to the stage we're used to playing on.
The throwback jerseys and $20 million in new scoreboards in the Big House, and a whole bunch of other programs we have in place to enhance the fan experience, these are all tactics designed to make the experience of Michigan football special and great. Ultimately, if we execute those at a high level, it will continue to build the brand.
Do you encounter much resistance with these moves?
DB: I'm a position where any decision I make, there's going to be some percentage of people disappointed by it, for whatever their reasons. I'm kind of used to that, actually. Whenever you're in a significant leadership role and you make changes, there's going to be certain people who resist and who want everything to stay the same. But generally the feedback I've received on some of the things we're doing that are new and different has been overwhelmingly positive.
People want Michigan to be on the national stage. They want us to be innovative. They want us to embrace our traditions -- and I do, I'm a part of that tradition -- but I also believe there's a lot of people that want us to be fresh and to be competitive, not just on the field through performance but also in the way we present our program to the nation.
Night football is so popular right now. What's the future outlook there for Michigan?
DB: We've not committed to any more night football games until we get the experience of Sept. 10. We're going to see how this goes, execute this at a high level, have it be a safe, positive experience for our fans. If it's a good experience and we execute it well and it's overall a positive night for our community and for our fans and our players and coaches, my expectations would be we would try to do a night game at least once a year. I don't know that we would necessarily go much beyond that, but to have one a year in Michigan Stadium would be a great goal.
What other ways are you exploring to enhance the brand?
DB: We're constantly challenging ourselves. How can we leverage what we have, who we are, and take it up a notch? I've hired a chief marketing officer [Hunter Lochmann] who has come in and is doing some terrific stuff with social media and the way we're marketing our tickets. We're really working hard to make sure we don't become too football-centric, in light of the fact we're putting nearly $100 million into Crisler Arena. We added men's and women's lacrosse, which for us is a brand builder. It's a completely different initiative: new conferences, new campuses we would be visiting, new colleagues. We're doing a lot of things above and beyond just football to try to put our brand at a different level.
Would you ever envision a day when Michigan could have its own TV Network?
DB: No, I don't, only because the Big Ten Network has been so successful. And it was built on the same basic premise that has afforded the Big Ten Conference to be so successful for so long, and that is one of complete collegiality and teamwork. We all share and share alike in the Big Ten, we always have. We don't create this competitive world where everybody's trying to grab what they think they're entitled to. We all work together well for the greater purpose, and we all share in the benefits that are created. That model, to me, makes a world of sense. For that reason, Michigan is very invested in and interested in continuing to build the Big Ten to continue to be the greatest conference in America.
How much do you look at other branding models?
DB: I'm a big believer in benchmarking. You're always out there looking at what other people are doing, particularly the programs you respect and the programs that are growing and achieving success. We try to find out who does the best job of executing the operations and creating the best fan experience? Who does the best job of providing academic support services? Who's doing the best job with facilities? That's part of the way you get better. I'll always do that. But just because Texas is out there forming their own television network doesn't mean that's a good model for Michigan. It's an interesting thing for them to do in their set of circumstances, but our circumstances are different.