Dave Brandon on Expansion, Rivalries and Michigan Men

By Kyle Rowland on February 4, 2013 at 10:00a

Since becoming the director of athletics at the University of Michigan in 2010, Dave Brandon has brought Michigan athletics into the 21st century without trampling on traditions. Michigan Stadium hosted its first night game and Crisler Center and Yost Ice Arena have undergone extensive renovations. 

Brandon became Michigan's 11th athletic director in 2010.

But the chief accomplishment during Brandon’s tenure has been the hiring of Brady Hoke as head football coach. After a forgettable three-year stretch of Rich Rodriguez, Hoke led Michigan to an 11-2 record, win over Ohio State and a Sugar Bowl victory in his first season. The Wolverines slid back during his second year, but with another strong recruiting class just days away from signing, it appears Michigan is poised to give Ohio State a run as king of the Big Ten.

Prior to Brandon’s appointment as AD at Michigan, he was the CEO of Domino’s Pizza for nearly 11 years. It was his business background that led Brandon to Toledo, Ohio, on Friday. The keynote speaker at the KeyBank Global Leaders Forum, Brandon revealed that Michigan had used Facebook to teach student-athletes a lesson on social media.

The experiment involved an attractive female who ‘friended’ athletes. Some of the players responded and sent her comments that were deemed inappropriate. At a later gathering of athletes, the woman walked in to the room. Only then did the players realize the person they had been in contact with was the employee of a firm hired by Michigan to conduct social media lessons.

Eleven Warriors, along with other media outlets, reported Michigan ‘catfished’ the athletes. Michigan vehemently denied that practice and reached out to Eleven Warriors.

“The use of the word ‘catfishing’ is inaccurate and not what was done in this circumstance (fall 2011),” said associate athletic director Dave Ablauf. “The female did not interact with student-athletes other than to friend request them. What they did was what 100 percent of the individuals who have social media accounts can do – friend or follow an individual.

“Did one or two of the student-athletes reach out and ask her questions about herself? Sure they did. But that was not the premise of the exercise and not used in any way in the presentation. That is where (Eleven Warriors) and others are getting lost in the details. You are attaching what has transpired in the last (Manti Te’o case) and what the show on MTV showcases and are trying to draw a correlation that's not there.

“This should be a positive story about teaching student-athletes about the perils of social media, but the use of one word creates a negative connotation.”

Following his Toledo speech to business leaders, Brandon graciously agreed to sit down with Eleven Warriors to discuss a wide array of topics concerning the Big Ten and intercollegiate athletics.

OSU and Michigan will likely be in the same division.

Is the nine- or 10-game Big Ten Conference schedule something you could foresee happening?

Dave Brandon: It’s one of the big decisions we need to make. It’s been an ongoing discussion, really since we added Nebraska to the conference and went to 12 teams. We had a discussion, do we stay at eight or go to nine? Now we’ve added two more teams, so it’s time to have the discussion again. There are proponents to staying at eight, there are proponents to moving to nine. Some believe nine is problematic and we should go to 10. We, as a group, need to sit down and work through it and hopefully find a consensus.

We’ll do it soon. Typically you schedule out two, three, fours years out into the future, some even further. Those are the kind of decisions the sooner we can make them the better, because as soon as we know what we are dealing with, we can plan accordingly. Right now everyone is on a scheduling hiatus pending the outcome of these discussions, so we need to make a call.

Will Maryland and Rutgers have input?

DB: Oh yeah. I think they’ll be attending our sessions as it relates to these discussions because, certainly, they’ll have a vested interest in the outcome.

A boost in the number of conference games could change how many home games you have. How will that affect revenue and if revenue is lost how will that be combated?

DB: Obviously these are all conference decisions, so we have to make them collectively. Specifically to Michigan and, certainly, Ohio State, because Gene (Smith) and I have talked about this, it is exceedingly important that we play a minimum of seven home games. Both of our business models are driven by that. If we were to get into a circumstance where we were playing six home games that would be very problematic.

The consequences are that in a world where we go from eight to nine conference games, we would still have the ability to schedule three non-conference games. You could schedule two at home and schedule a home-and-home and make that work. If we were to go to 10 conference games, which some people are suggesting with 14 teams and, certainly, there is merit to that, you avoid the five and four imbalance.

But now you’ve only got the flexibility of scheduling two non-conference games and if you want to play seven home games both of them have to be at home. When you do that, you really put us in a position where we really can’t go on the road to play a big BCS opponent because they aren’t going to schedule you on a one-and-done. They’re going to want to play a home-and-home.

So the consequences of going to 10, when overlaid with the fact that you have to play seven home games, really puts Gene and me in a position where we won’t be traveling to play non-conference away games. I, personally, am concerned about that. Part of what our fans and college football fans want to see are these great intersectional rivalries that can develop or just good matchups.

Why is there such a big push to change the conference schedule? It’s worked just fine for 50 years.

DB: Well, 50 years ago we had 10 teams in the Big Ten. Now we have 14. If you’re a kid coming in as a freshman and you’re going to be part of the Big Ten Conference with 14 teams, if you only play eight conference games a season, you’re going to go through a whole four-year career and not play some of the other teams. That doesn’t feel particularly right. You’re trying to build conference continuity and cohesion. We want to travel to their campuses, they want to travel to our campuses, and you’re going to put yourself in position where you aren’t going to be able to do that.

That would be why a lot of the conferences have moved to nine. I don’t believe any have moved to 10. But I know a lot of ADs and coaches are concerned about a season where Ohio State plays four conference home games and Michigan plays five, and we’re competing for a Big Ten championship. There are some that would argue that that isn’t a level playing field, and I understand that. There are tradeoffs in whatever direction this goes.

You mentioned wanting to schedule more neutral site games. How does that fit into the model if they move to a nine- or 10-game conference schedule?

DB: Well, it depends on how you look at it. From a fan perspective, it’s considered an away game because you have to travel to get there. That’s why we would not do that on any kind of regular basis. And we wouldn’t do it if it were at the expense of home games because our fans deserve and want to see games on campus. That’s where our priorities are going to be.

However, in some cases, if we can go on the road and play at a neutral site we can play in a bigger venue, and the economics are going to be far more attractive. To put a really big matchup together like our Alabama game and do a one-off game, you don’t have to do a home-and-home. It’s only a one-game deal, and the networks want those matchups to the point where they’ll pay up to get them.

It won’t completely offset the loss of a home game-type revenue, but it’s much better than you’d get if you went on the road and played somebody. So financially it’s a good deal and, as an occasional departure from the norm, I thought it was a great experience for us. But that would be as a plus to seven home games, not at the expense of a home game.

The hiring of Hoke has been Brandon's biggest achievement.

When the divisions were first thought up, competitive balance was a main sticking point. Now that there is such a wide geographic margin, do you think geography will factor in more importantly?

DB: My sense is yes. We’ve only had preliminary discussions, but the general feeling I’m getting from everybody is that because the footprint keeps expanding, it makes more sense to weigh geography more heavily than we did last time. That doesn’t mean it’s the only driver, because competitive balance is important, but I think geography will be a bigger concern.

It’s more football-centric. Each sport will make a decision whether it follows the divisional alignment. Some sports don’t set themselves up for it. Basketball, I don’t think you want divisions for basketball. Hockey will be a lot smaller; lacrosse will be smaller. There will be a whole bunch of different sports that look at it differently. But for football specifically, I think the geographic sensibilities are the ones we should be mindful of.

But we still want to play Nebraska and we’re all going to want to travel. I don’t think we’re going to get preoccupied with it, but if you have to split up to two divisions, I think you at least have to give consideration to how an east-west configuration would work.

Michigan is currently ranked second in the Directors' Cup. The basketball program has been ranked No. 1 and the football program is back on the rise. Speak to how difficult it is to be so successful at both the marquee sports.

DB: It’s the same thing with Ohio State; it’s hard because everybody wants to win at those two sports. Everybody is going to put their biggest resources into those sports because those are the ones that are going to generate a return on those investments. Everybody wants the best coach, everybody wants to fill their stadiums and everybody wants to fill their arenas. You’re going to get everybody’s best shot.

If you’re going to put money and resources into anything, you’re going to put them into football and men’s basketball, because you’re going to get a return. That makes the competitive climate really, really tough. It’s hard to be in a position where you’re nationally competitive at both, but that’s our aspiration. That’s always been the Michigan tradition, just like it is down in Columbus.

You’re a ‘Michigan Man.’ You played under Bo Schembechler in the 1970s. How healthy do you see the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry? With Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke, it looks like ‘The Game’ is about to take off again.

DB: When I played it was Bo vs. Woody. The games were always hard-fought. It usually came down to a field goal. The battle wasn’t just the last game in November between the two football programs; the battle was recruiting. You have these two powerhouse programs not too far from one another that are fighting over the hearts and minds of fans and recruits.

It feels to me that it’s starting to move back in that direction. The last couple games have been great – highly competitive, fan interest is intense. Recruiting battles are fun to see because our recruiting core is the same Midwestern platform. I think the rivalry is going to be fun to watch the next couple years.

We love playing Ohio State, we love the big matchups, we love the battle, we love the competitiveness. We’re really blessed because we have a great in-state rivalry with Michigan State. We live with that every day because they’re in our backyard.

This Michigan and Ohio State thing is special. When they start talking about the biggest rivalries in sport, they always mention the Michigan-Ohio State football game, and there’s good reason for that.

You mentioned the possibility of possible future conference expansion. Is that something that’s just kicking around, or are there serious talks about adding more teams to the Big Ten?

DB: There are always rumors out there. But my general feeling is if you asked me, 'have we got to the point where everything is settled and that’s the way it’s going to be for the next decade?', I just don’t believe it.

I still think there are media deals to be done. There are conferences at risk and conferences poised for future growth. To me, the landscape is still somewhat unsettled. There’s still going to be some shaking out to occur. And what happens is whenever School A goes from Conference A to Conference B, not only does that change occur, but there’s a void in another conference and there’s a fistfight to find out who fills it. One move tends to cause a ripple effect for other moves.

As it relates to specific conversations that something is imminent, I don’t know of anything. But these things tend to happen pretty quickly.

Do you think the Big Ten would be the first to go to a 16-team superconference?

DB: I have no way of knowing, and I don’t know where 16 teams came from in terms of superconferences. Does that mean no one would go to 18 or 20? I don’t know what the finish line looks like, and I don’t think anyone else does either. When you look at some of the conferences that are fragile, there could be programs looking for a home. Things could move quickly, or we could be in a mode where this settles down and we stay where we are for a while. This is a difficult call.

“If you look at what’s going on, one of the main motivations behind expansion is to create new geography and create more density and reach for television audiences, for ticket sales and for recruiting.”

Do you get the sense that further expansion would be in the current footprint, or are there new territories that look attractive?

DB: If you look at what’s going on, one of the main motivations behind expansion is to create new geography and create more density and reach for television audiences, for ticket sales and for recruiting. Probably what you’d find is the things most attractive are to take in new eyes for TV, new recruiting territories and places where you can expand your reach.

The challenge the Big Ten had, even prior to the addition of Nebraska, is that we’re in an area that has a pretty slow population growth. If you’re sitting in a conference trying to have a 20-year view of decisions you’re making and you’re growing at a population growth rate of one percent or less and you look at other conferences that have got them in position where they’re growing at three of four percent. When you run that out over 20 years and start thinking about what that means for ticket sales, television revenues, cable subscribers and all those factors, you’re pushed to say, 'how do I get myself in areas where there’s growth and expansion?'

Long answer, but I really believe when conference commissioners are looking at viable expansion opportunities they aren’t really saying, 'how do we grow concentration within our existing footprint?' They’re saying, 'how do we expand our footprint?'

The Big Ten was a leader in expansion. There’s always talk of the changing landscape, but didn’t the Big Ten create that? Would all this expansion have taken place if the Big Ten just stayed at 11 teams?

DB: I don’t view it that way. We added Penn State 22 years ago and went 20 years and didn’t add anybody. While that was going on there were ongoing changes in conference compositions. Look at what happened in the Big East, the ACC and Conference USA. The Pac-12, as I recall, the first significant development was when they took Colorado and had serious discussions going with other people. I don’t know that any one conference was the trigger point. I just think everyone was looking at the same set of issues and decisions started to be made.

We added Nebraska and we were quite content. That was important to get to 12 games because we got the divisional structure and the championship game. But to go from 12 to 14 was more of an elective decision than anything that we needed to do.

A big development at Ohio State has been the recent ticket increase. Obviously the big-time programs are going to sell out because they have such rabid fans. Michigan Stadium and Ohio Stadium are always going to sell out. But will there ever be a time where the price is capped? When does this ever stop? It seems like people will eventually be priced out.

DB: It’s a market economy. None of us can price our tickets so high that our customers start to look at alternatives. You look at the price of an NBA game or NFL game and you would say we offer an awful lot of entertainment for the money, especially with the college gameday experience, tailgating, halftime shows and all the things we do that makes it special, and the emotional connection that people have that is different than the loyalty to their local NFL team.

There’s an argument to be made that if you have more people that want tickets than there are tickets they can sell, you have some pricing power. That’s what Gene has, and he’s pricing his tickets appreciably higher than we are. He’s clearly looking at a supply and demand model that says there’s value to be had. He’s got 36 programs to support. I’m sure he’s got facility and capital needs plans, and he’s doing something that anyone in his job would do.

I’m assuming that if there’s somebody that says, ‘Gee, you’ve taken me further than I want to go. I’m not going to repurchase my tickets,’ I’m assuming Gene has somebody waiting in line to buy them.

But aren’t you also competing with, in addition to other sports and forms of entertainment, HDTVs?

DB: Of course. It’s not just, 'am I going to go to an NFL game or a college game?' In fact, very seldom do I think that’s our competitor. Our real competitor is, do you ever get to the point where you think, instead of buying that season ticket I can buy a 62-inch flat screen HDTV, I can watch it in 3-D and I can also buy an electronically controlled recliner and be real comfortable.

At some point in time, that’s as much of a competitor for us as other sports venues. We’re all looking at supply and demand just like anyone else would in a business that’s selling seats. If we go too far in price our customers will let us know; they won’t buy.

Do you foresee a time in the near future when Michigan’s face value reaches $100?

DB: It could be argued that they already have. Average ticket prices for our night game against Notre Dame (in 2011) were $320 on StubHub. It’s not unheard of at all for tickets to top $100 on the secondary market.

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