Pandemic likely to end to 45-year streak of 100,000-plus crowds at Michigan Stadium

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

There won’t be 110,000 fans at Michigan Stadium this fall. There might not be any fans at all. And it’s still possible there won’t be a college football season.

But if there is a season, one thing seems certain: The University of Michigan's historic 45-year record streak of football games with 100,000 or more fans in the stadium will end due to social distancing limitations prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Michigan announced Wednesday there will be no public sale of tickets, but season-ticket holders and students will be eligible to purchase tickets on an individual-game basis, although stadium capacity will be limited. It's yet one more sign that, if a season is played, one of the most remarkable attendance runs in the history of professional or college sports will end at 293 consecutive games.

Michigan wide receiver Nico Collins runs into the end zone for a touchdown on a 48-yard pass against Rutgers in 2019.

“The streak is a big deal because it’s the largest crowd watching a college football game today in America,” said Jon Jansen, co-captain of the 1997 unbeaten UM team and an ESPNU radio host. “There are more people going to watch Michigan football and visiting the Big House than anywhere else. That’s the important part.

“If you want to look at metrics. You could look at ratings for Michigan football games on TV. If our society is going to change and everybody wants to watch games from home or from their mobile device or whatever it is, or whatever the next thing will be, there will be a metric where Michigan is, again, leaders and best.”

Michigan’s streak shares rarefied air with the likes of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, who have a sellout streak since 1959 with games mostly played at Lambeau Field (they played 107 at Milwaukee County Stadium). Nebraska has a 57-year sellout streak dating to 1962, and Notre Dame had sold out 273 consecutive games beginning in 1973 until facing Navy last year.

Warde Manuel, Michigan athletic director, said last month this would not be a “normal” season and that Michigan Stadium, the country’s largest stadium with a capacity of 107,601, might have some fans, or no fans at all. While he and his staff weigh multiple options to try to play what the Big Ten announced last week will be a 10-game conference schedule, Michigan’s 100,000 streak isn’t on the radar.

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“This isn’t the time to focus on attendance streaks or sellout crowds,” Manuel said in a statement to The Detroit News. “Our attention is on the health, safety and welfare of everyone associated with our football games.”

Illinois announced Thursday that Memorial Stadium will be reduced to 20-percent capacity with reserved seating this fall and social distancing guidelines observed. More programs are expected to release their plans for a fall Big Ten season that has not yet been formalized.

 College football attendance will be far from normal everywhere, not just in Ann Arbor.

“Today, July 2020, August 2020, September 2020, who gives a rat’s behind about a streak?” said Bruce Madej, special advisor to the Michigan athletic department and UM sports information director for more than three decades. “This is going to be an asterisk season. Nothing here is normal in 2020.”

The 100,000 streak has long been a source of pride at Michigan. The last time Michigan Stadium had a crowd of less than 100,000 was on Oct. 25, 1975, when the Wolverines played Indiana before 93,857. The current streak began two weeks later on Nov. 8, 1975, when 102,415 attended Michigan’s game against Purdue.

Michigan broke ground in 1926 to build Michigan Stadium; it opened in 1927, and the original capacity was 72,000. There was a major renovation completed in 2010 that included the addition of luxury boxes and club seats.

There have been occasions when the streak appeared to be threatened. In 2014, Brady Hoke’s last season at Michigan while Dave Brandon was athletic director, preserving the 100,000 streak required distributing complimentary tickets. The Detroit News obtained ticket data from the university through the open-records act in 2015 and it revealed there were 62,879 free tickets given in 2014 that accounted for roughly 8.6 percent of the attendance. The previous season, 2.8 percent of the attendance was from complimentary tickets.

Ticket sales were robust after Jim Harbaugh, entering his sixth season as head coach, was hired, and the season-ticket wait list, which had been absent, returned.

Michigan fans hold up a large sign that reads, "The team, the team, the team," during a game against Iowa in 2019.

Michigan led the nation last season in average attendance with 111,459. The victory against Notre Dame drew 111,909 and there were 112,071 for the loss to Ohio State. Penn State was second in average attendance last season (105,678) and Ohio State was third (103,382).

While Nebraska’s sellout streak remains intact, Notre Dame, Alabama, Florida and Virginia Tech were among the programs that saw the end of their sellout streaks in recent years. Ohio State saw its streak of 114 consecutive games of 100,000 or more snapped in 2018 against Rutgers when 93,057 attended. Penn State saw its streak of 100,000 dip after receiving NCAA sanctions in 2014 because of the sexual abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. The program was given a four-year postseason ban and reduced scholarships.

Michigan Stadium’s streak of consecutive games with 100,000 or more fans appears to be unreachable going forward, especially because fans may be drawn more toward watching their favorite teams on television, or wary of close contact with other fans.

“It’s highly unlikely, especially since attendance nationally has been declining in recent years, in part because of the conference television networks," Gerry DiNardo, Big Ten Network analyst, told The News. "If we do have a season, people who used to buy season tickets and don’t feel good about being in the stands (due to the virus threat) might end up staying home and enjoying watching the games on television. They might buy big-screen TVs instead of tickets.”

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According to the NCAA’s official attendance figures, the average FBS attendance last season (including home, neutral site and bowl games) was at its lowest in 24 years with an average 41,477 fans per game. That was the lowest average since 1996 and fourth-lowest since 1982. Attendance last season was down only 379 fans from 2018, a small percentage, but it was the eighth time in nine years there was a decline nationally.

College football television ratings have been on the upswing and Michigan is among the most-watched teams. Last season, Fox saw a 12-percent increase in viewership for college football while ESPN/ABC was up 4 percent. In Michigan’s last game of the 2019 season, a marquee matchup against Alabama in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day, ESPN announced the game drew 14.3 million viewers, the best numbers for an ABC bowl game since the 2010 national championship game between Alabama and Texas.

So while attendance will look vastly different if there is a college football season this fall, there's a chance that networks will continue to see an uptick in viewership.

But even if attendance records and sellout streaks are broken across the country, it's certainly an unusual circumstance, the pandemic, that will make it a unique year.

Said Madej: “You’re just gonna put an asterisk by it.”

Really Big House

Here are the largest crowds at Michigan Stadium for a football game:

►115,109: Sept. 7, 2013 – Michigan 41, Notre Dame 30

►114,804: Sept. 10, 2011 – Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31

►114,132: Nov. 26, 2011 – Michigan 40, Ohio State 34

►113,833: Oct. 20, 2012 – Michigan 12, Michigan State 10

►113,718: Nov. 19, 2011– Michigan 45, Nebraska 17