91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

There's no such thing as a "Walmart Wolverine"

A typical student's view inside the Big House.
Andrew Horne
wikimedia commons
The Big House

One debate I could do without is this: Who are the real Michigan fans?

I realize that sounds pretty stupid. Anybody who cheers for Michigan is a Michigan fan, right? But we make it harder than it needs to be.   

Some folks believe only people who graduated from Michigan can call themselves real Michigan fans.

The rest? They are mere “Walmart Wolverines” – fans who pick their college teams the way they pick their professional teams: mainly by geography.

He stated that Michigan's mission was to provide "an uncommon education for the common man."

This division goes back to the very birth of Michigan athletics. President James B. Angell, took office in 1871 – eight years before Michigan’s first football game. He stated that Michigan’s mission was to provide "an uncommon education for the common man."

He was no snob. 

He was thrilled to see the children of farmers and factory workers become philosophers, but he couldn’t stand the game of football they loved so much, and he hated the hysteria that came with it.

Angell hoped to return college athletics to the English ideal, which promoted health, not hype. 

The idea that strangers would pay to watch the Wolverines play struck him as strange, and possibly harmful to the university’s academic culture.

But Angell failed to see sport’s value in pitching his public school to the taxpayers, who picked up more than 90% of the university’s budget through the 1950s.

If you were a farmer in Fennville or a factory worker in Flint, why would you approve millage after millage for the University of Michigan?

My answer: The Big House. 

The athletic campus serves as the front porch, the one place at the university where everybody feels welcome. On any given Saturday, fully a quarter of The Big House did not attend the school, and many are among the university’s biggest donors, and most loyal fans.

... the nation's three biggest college football fan bases are Ohio State's, Michigan's, and Penn State's, for a combined 8.7 million, more than the entire Pac-12.

According to Nate Silver – yes, that Nate Silver, who correctly predicted every state in the last presidential election – the nation’s three biggest college football fan bases are Ohio State’s, Michigan’s, and Penn State’s, for a combined 8.7 million, more than the entire Pac-12.

If these Big Ten teams depended solely on their students and alumni for support, they would lose roughly 80% of their fan base – and with it, the tickets, TV ratings and t-shirt sales that go with it.

Were it not for these so-called “Walmart Wolverines,” a phrase I would love to see die, The Big House and the Big Ten Network would not exist, and the University of Michigan would be a Walmart. 

The Big Ten’s fans include every demographic you can name, but it’s what they have in common that’s most important: a shared love of their favorite Big Ten school.  The Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa have both noted that the great disease of Western civilization is loneliness.

Yes, it’s possible to be lonely in a crowd – but not this one.

Studies show our endorphins spike when we’re marching in formation, singing in unison, or cheering together in a stadium, where you know 100,000 of your closest friends are feeling exactly what you’re feeling, exactly when you’re feeling it.  

Think about it.

Every Big Ten game is televised. You can sit back in your easy chair at home and watch every game for free. Yet, we go, because we need to be together. We need to share something we care about with strangers. And to fill that need, you could do worse than Big Ten football. College football stadiums are one of the few places where we connect across race, religion, and politics. And we do it with vigor.

When you walk through the gates at Michigan Stadium, nobody cares about your age or your income, your race, religion or creed. And nobody should care if you went to school there, either. They should only care about one thing: Can you sing “The Victors”? If you know when to throw your fist in the air, you’re in. 

Welcome to The Big House. Hail.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
Related Content