UM athletic director Warde Manuel 'looking forward to a full stadium' this fall

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel said that, as it stands now, he does not foresee any restrictions on the number of fans attending games this fall at Michigan Stadium.

The Wolverines open the season Sept. 4 against Western Michigan marking the return of spectators. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and state restrictions, fans were not allowed to attend home games during an abbreviated Big Ten-only schedule. Michigan’s first four games will be at home.

Warde Manuel

Manuel, appearing on the Conqu’ring Heroes podcast with host Jon Jansen, touched on a wide-range of subjects on Thursday, including discussions of a Big Ten-Pac-12-ACC alliance, vaccination rates among Michigan students and the status of the athletic department budget, name, image and likeness (NIL), along with assurances of no advertising in Michigan Stadium.

On Wednesday, Michigan released mask protocols for on-campus indoor and outdoor events this fall — masks are recommended but not required at the moment for Michigan Stadium, with the exception of restrooms and indoor facilities, but are required for all indoor athletic events.

“All mask mandates and guidelines are for indoor areas, so right now I'm looking forward to a full stadium, I'm looking forward to our fans coming back and enjoying themselves,” Manuel told Jansen on the podcast posted Thursday. “I do want to emphasize that I encourage people to protect themselves. We're gonna bring back 100,000 people-plus, and we all need to be cognizant of where we are in that we have many around us, some who have been vaccinated, but may still be in a precarious position health-wise.

“We should just be smart about it and make sure that we are taking into account where we are and who we are, and maybe you have your mask off in the in the stadium, but you put your mask on when you go to the concession area, those kind of things, or keep your mask on in the stadium. There are gonna be a lot of fans, because from what I understand from (talking to) people, is that people miss Saturdays with their friends and their family. It was great (last year), you’re at your house, you could watch it on television, but it's not the same. And it wasn't the same watching in the Big House without fans. I promise you that it wasn't the same.”

‎MGoBlue Podcasts with Jon Jansen: Conqu'ring Heroes 27 - Warde Manuel on Apple Podcasts

Some highlights of Manuel’s conversation with Jansen:

► On athletes/staff vaccination and steps for this year: “If a student-athlete is asymptomatic, they do not have to test like they did last year on a daily or weekly basis, and so it gives us some ability in working with the health department here in Washtenaw County. The flexibility has been given to those who are vaccinated not to have to wear masks, not to have to social distance, not to contact trace and those kinds of things if you're asymptomatic. That's what we're following.  It all depends on how this virus goes as to whether or not we'll have to implement more, but right now, that's what we're doing with our student-athletes. And I'm proud to say, at this point in time, I think we have 96 or 97% of our student athletes have chosen to become vaccinated, and something like 10 or 11 teams where everybody on the team has been vaccinated.”

On whether the Big Ten has conference-wide protocols: “They are monitoring it across the Big Ten, but the decision was made to go to local guidance and local rules and regulations as to that state or that county, as opposed to impose something across the board, because, for example, I just said that 96-97% of our student athletes are fully vaccinated. Well, you're going to put the same limitations on us, that may maybe in another state at another university within the Big Ten, that may be at 50 or 60, they may not be implementing anything mandatory, they may have a low uptick in who decides to get vaccinated because of that. So it becomes really hard to do, in other words, to mandate and get down to the lowest common denominator, and it becomes unfair, really. It becomes unfair to our student-athletes who have such a high vaccination rate to have to deal with rules because others have a very low vaccination rate. If the need occurs, if the need arises, we can implement something across the Big Ten.”

► On the athletic department financially and the plan to get to pre-pandemic numbers: “We had a deficit of $60 million from last year, and we have a loan from university that we have to pay back. This year when I proposed our budget, it was about $19 million short of what we would have proposed pre-pandemic for last year. We are looking at continuing to cut back on expenses … to help pay down that deficit to the university. We did not increase ticket prices this year. We're obviously well aware of what our fans have gone through, well aware of where we are. We talked about that last fall, because even in the midst of the season, we could have won all of our games last year and we wouldn't have increased our ticket prices, because we just we realized where our fan base and where our season ticket holders and our donors were, and we all had a struggle. To come out of it and say, ‘Oh, well, you got to pay more,’ just didn't seem right. We're going to manage with what we have, but knock on wood, if we're able to have fans throughout the season, and all the games are able to be televised, we'll be moving back toward a normal revenue stream and balanced budget for this year based on what we projected in terms of revenues and expenses.”

► On renewing the contract with Learfield through 2031 and what might change: “You may notice that we will have bigger partners in terms of where Learfield wants to position things and how they want to move forward, but in a general sense, I think you're just gonna see the strength of the relationship that has continued between Learfield and Michigan athletics. I'm looking forward to it. I’ve had general meetings with the staff and a couple of sponsors and I think the world of Learfield and all the things that they're bringing to the table. You're still not going to see signage in Michigan Stadium -- that's not happening. I just want to ensure our fans that that's not going to be happening.”

► On name, image and likeness: “Early on, I welcomed name, image and likeness, but I also said there would be a balance that would be necessary. This is 200 years-plus the University of Michigan has been around, and this Block M has been around for much of that as a representation and a symbol of Michigan. It is not something that is just something that we give away. We try to make sure that we respect it and make sure others who use it respect it and give us the licensing fees that that are warranted, just like every other university. We’re not vastly different, although our brand is much stronger, right? It’s a very strong brand, so it needs to be balanced. But I want our student-athletes to,  if they can write a book, write an app, do social media and get paid, do commercials using their name and get paid, I’m very much welcoming that. Like some of our Olympians will get paid because they have for some of their countries, including the US, if they win a medal, they get a certain amount of money, and that’s great. For me, I think it's progressing well, albeit slowly. We're educating our student-athletes now as they get back. We did some over the summer, but it was July and hard for our kids to always connect with everything that they have going on. We are in talks with several companies about coming in as a partner to help manage it. Right now, we will keep talking to our student-athletes and keep trying to make sure that we are supportive. But again, that there's balance between the supporting them and also making sure that we protect everything about Michigan in our logos.”

► On talk of an alliance of the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC: “It has been great conversations between the commissioners. (Big Ten) commissioner (Kevin) Warren has done a great job in talking with the Pac-12 commissioner and the ACC commissioner.  I don't have anything to share other than, in general, I'm excited about that potential in what it would bring in and under the leadership of Kevin Warren I just think he made the right decision to have that conversation. It's not just about games. We have a lot in common with the Pac-12 schools and the ACC schools. It’s about being like institutions, looking at governance, how we think about those kind of things have traditionally been the same. There’s a lot of great colleagues I have an SEC,  this is not down on them, but given some of the movement that occurred, I think this is the right decision to be made to have that conversation amongst the three of us and to really form this alliance that sort of thinks about things on a more consistent basis than just waiting for our annual NCAA meeting. And if that turns out to be great games and great schedules in football and basketball and Olympic sports, I love it. I think it's great for sports.”