Put yourself, for a moment, in the shoes of Michigan State Athletic Director Mark Hollis, circa summer 2009. Comfy shoes, aren't they? Nice leather loafers probably. But I digress.
You took your current job about a year and a half ago, succeeding legendary hockey coach Ron Mason. You have been fortunate enough to inherit another legend, Tom Izzo, as the coach of your perennially successful basketball team, and at this point, your predecessor's hire of Mark Dantonio to rebuild the football program isn't looking too shabby, either, though you might not yet have guessed exactly how well that will turn out in another couple of years.
Ergo, the most visible and inflammatory parts of your job, the ones most likely to get you fired if you screw up- picking the football and men's basketball coaches- are thus done for you. You could pretty easily coast for a couple years, shuffle some funds around, browse paint swatches for the AD offices, fire the fencing coach if you get bored.
Or. OR. You could enter into an agreement with 3 other schools that is a convenient and subtle way to elevate the esteem with which many thousands of Michigan residents hold your institution while simultaneously fulfilling the needs of your football program, which of course is the engine driving your whole operation from a financial standpoint.
Yeah, that sounds more like a Mark Hollis kind of thing to do. Later, you'll do some stuff on a boat.
What you decide to do, you clever little businessman, you, is conceive and execute the Celebrate the State series.
The series is, in reality, not much more than a scheduling agreement. MSU will get 3 home games from each school (Central, Western, and Eastern Michigan), and in return will play a game at each of those schools, over the next decade (2011-2020). The road dates are set for 2012 (@CMU), 2015 (@WMU), and either 2018 or 2020 (@EMU).
OK, fast-forward to today and stop pretending you're Mark Hollis. Why did Hollis do this, and what benefits did MSU recover from it?
Well, first of all, there's some value in locking opponents down ahead of time if you can. I may be giving Hollis a little too much credit here, but it wouldn't surprise me if even back then, he knew that eventually, a college football playoff would replace the current model, and that strength of schedule would become a more meaningful factor in a team's postseason fortunes. The ability to schedule the creamiest of cream puffs- FCS schools- would dissipate. If that happened, MAC schools like these three would suddenly find their nonconference games in much greater demand.
But even if Hollis didn't foresee all that, sealing ideal non-conference opponents for a total of 12 games over the next decade is a pretty good day at the office.
At this point you're probably saying, is that it? This is why you're spilling so much ink? MSU locks up some opponents that it probably could have scheduled the year before anyway, and it promised them each a home game to do so? Hollis is terrible at his job! Does he even WATCH football? THIS is what you did with your first OTE article? Sparty writer, NO!
Stay with me, and I'll lead you home, I promise.
Because the thing is, this series has nothing to do with the opponents on the field at all. Sure, the profile of the teams in question is perfect for your nonconference schedule- weak enough for a win to be highly probable, but not so pathetically weak that your fans revolt at how boring it is and your coach doesn't learn anything about his team from playing them.
No, what this is really about is growing the fanbase and growing the brand. Because, in my experience, there aren't very many MSU fans who didn't either go there themselves or have a parent, spouse, or child that went or goes there. MSU is a large school with a whole lot of living alumni, but slip back in Hollis' shoes for a second: is that source of support good enough for you? Or would you rather sell another 25,000 jerseys, sweatshirts, and miscellaneous other merchandises a year, and be closer to a sold-out stadium for every home game? Yeah, that's what I thought.
Most of college football's biggest brands enjoy fandom from not only their students and alumni, but also many others who, for whatever reason, feel a sense of belonging and loyalty to a brand with which they otherwise have no direct relationship. And yeah, we Spartans, and a lot of you other fans of non-blueblood teams, often look upon such fans with great derision (Wal-mart Wolverines, Subway Alumni, Reversible Jackets, whatever you want to call them). But what Mark Hollis knows is that their money, and their TV eyeballs, are just as valuable as the guy who still paints himself for every game 20 years after graduating.
Time for another thought exercise. Step now into the sweaty shoes of a student at one of these three schools, or better yet, an alumnus and longtime fan. Into the shoes of a football fan who's never seen a B1G-caliber team come into your stadium, whose most exciting memories of their team are against fricking Akron. Until Celebrate the State brings MSU to you. Yeah, your team's probably (hopefully) about to get trampled, but it's still a helluva lot more interesting, right? Are you not entertained???
Herein lies the rub: now think about the day later in the season when Michigan and Michigan State play. Who, Chippewa fan, are you rooting for? The institution that only deigns to play you in their stadium, and then tosses the crumpled-up game check at you like you're a two-dollar whore? Or the team that came to your city, your campus, to give you what every Central fan I talked to last season described as the biggest game in your school's history?
OK, no more role playing, and next time we'll have a safe word, I swear. But answer the question honestly. Sure, a lot of people won't think much of it, and I'm sure plenty of CMU fans remain the Walliest of Walverines. However, Kelly-Shorts Stadium was packed to the rafters that day last fall (for the first half, before it got out of hand and the students left to resume drinking, my Chippewa companions informed me). Amongst those who went to that game, Hollis knows that most of them came away with an improved opinion of MSU because of it- both of the quality of our team, which they saw firsthand, and, possibly, of the school in general for being willing to make the trip. Even for those local residents who could care less about football, you better believe the Mount Pleasant business community has a much stronger affinity for MSU after the town's population roughly tripled for a day.
Mark Hollis is known more for his flashy, high-profile events. Make no mistake, he's great with that stuff; the Cold War, Carrier Classic, and the game at Ramstein AFB were all brilliant, though I'm still waiting for my basketball game on the moon (probably trying to figure out how to keep Brandon Dawson from achieving escape velocity on his dunks). But this might end up being one of the more impactful things Hollis does during his tenure. It's the kind of thing that separates good ADs from great ones. MSU fans don't typically get too excited about playing these teams. But for a program trying to level the playing field with a certain school down the road, every new fan counts.