Into The Arena: The Importance of Nostalgia in College Sports

October 25th, 2017 | by Rafi Kohan
Into The Arena: The Importance of Nostalgia in College Sports

The Arena

Ed. Note: Author Rafi Kohan is joining us for a limited run to discuss his new book “The Arena” and the lessons he learned on his year-long stadium road trip. He’ll be sharing stories about unique fan experiences, logistics, and even the facilities themselves. We hope that these stories can be both entertaining and inspirational. 

For the last 70 years in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at every football home game, the Michigan Marching Band—now in its 122nd season—has performed the exact same pregame routine in the minutes before kickoff. The soundtrack is surely seared into the brains of students, athletes, and alumni alike. And yet, there is at least one man who admits he can’t hear a damn thing when the band parades onto the field inside Michigan Stadium, aka “the Big House,” so nicknamed for its official capacity of 107,601 and its standing as the largest stadium in the United States. That man? John Pasquale, director of the Michigan Marching Band. “I just hope it is together,” laughs Pasquale. “Because it is so loud, and the energy, the emotion—it is pretty incredible.”

This may be the loudest the Wolverines fans get all day, though. Michigan Stadium has long held a reputation for meager acoustics (especially before the addition of the luxury-suite and press-box towers along the sidelines, which help hold in some of the sound). Former Wolverines athlete-turned-broadcaster Jim Brandstatter tells me it took him until his junior year to really appreciate the size of the home crowd. “I remember, we were playing Arizona,” he says, “and I got outside and I kicked the cornerback out, and we scored right behind that block. I am laying on the ground and the crowd, just this noise, this gigantic roar.”

Personally, when I visit Ann Arbor, I am struck by just how small everything feels inside the Big House. For all the flag teams and cheerleaders and marching band members, there are no pyrotechnics, no laser light shows. Without the slick production of ESPN’s camera crews to frame the action—to give close-ups of the field of play as well as the drunken loons in the student section—the whole thing feels quaint, provincial.

Which is exactly how Michigan fans want it.

As fan experience experts have discovered time and again, college football supporters do not want their stadiums to mimic the bloated carnivals of their NFL counterparts. That is not what football Saturdays are about. In the words of John U. Bacon, a best-selling author who has written multiple books about Michigan football and the Big Ten conference, the fans “don’t just love football. They love Michigan football.”

They love that the football players run out of the tunnel and slap a “Go Blue” banner before every game. They love the corny cheerleader routines, which are pure Norman Rockwell. They love that the student section will start the wave at some point, and then do it again in slow-motion. They love that there are no outside ads within the seating bowl. They love that the video board will announce the Slippery Rock score, an ongoing gag that began in the late-1950s. (Slippery Rock is a Division II program in Pennsylvania, and Steve Filipiak, the Big House’s then-PA announcer, just thought the school had a funny name.) They love the fact that their football team has drawn more than 100,000 fans for more than 275 straight games (even though I have it on good authority that this streak is not totally legitimate). They love the marching band, which serves as a key differentiator between college and professional sports, while reinforcing fan identity. (Says Pasquale, “When I play our fight song, you are talking about 100,000 people instantly connecting—instantly! They only need to hear the first two notes.”) And most of all, they love that all these things inside the stadium remain largely unchanged—from week to week, from year to year.

It is yet another magic trick, an illusion whose power only grows as a person gets further from his or her college days, as nostalgia sets in. Time seems to stand still. For athletic departments, the task is simple: don’t ruin the illusion.

Rafi Kohan About Rafi Kohan
Rafi Kohan is the author of The Arena: Inside the Tailgating, Ticket-Scalping, Mascot-Racing, Dubiously Funded, and Possibly Haunted Monuments of American Sport. He has written for GQ, Men's Journal, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, L.A. Times, Rolling Stone, Town & Country, and more. Formerly, he served as deputy editor of New York Observer. Currently, he works at The Atlantic as the head of editorial for Re:think, the magazine's branded content studio.

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