On Thursday November 7th, the Ann Arbor City Council passed a resolution asking the University of Michigan to remove the new digital billboard that sits over East Stadium Boulevard located near the Big House. Occupying 1300 square feet of space, the city claims the billboard is too big, too bright, and too distracting to drivers as they pass. Council member Christopher Taylor further elaborated: “We made this judgment based on the belief that these billboards serve to distract drivers and that the intrusion of illuminated advertising degrades our vision-scope.”
The billboard, with a cost of over $2.8 million, flashes constantly changing messages at a rate of four messages per minute. Standing 21 feet high, 27 feet tall, and 48 feet wide, the billboard is also used to play videos on game days. The city of Ann Arbor has an ordinance prohibiting digital billboards, however, being a state institution, the university is not obligated to follow local ordinances.
Early indications from the university are that they have no intention of removing the billboard. President Mary Sue Coleman defended the billboard, saying, “My view is that the driver is responsible for not being distracted.” Coleman views the billboard as a key promotional tool for the non-revenue U of M sports, meaning sports other than men’s basketball and football: “Do I like the fact that we can let some people know about some sports, particularly the sports that aren’t high profile…you bet.” Athletic director Dave Brandon has a similar stance, as he has claimed the billboard is similar to those at other schools. Furthermore, Brandon indicated the location of the billboard across from the golf course was specifically chosen to avoid disrupting Ann Arbor residents near their homes.
If not taken down, the city council would like the digital billboard to only be activated during game days. The athletic department has stated that they will bring the resolution before the university. However, based on the responses of Brandon and Coleman, it seems unlikely that a solution will be put forth quickly. President Coleman hinted that the university and the city sometimes don’t see eye-to-eye: “I know that we spend a lot of time working with the city. There are some things the city does that we don’t necessarily agree with. We don’t always come to a common understanding. We deeply respect the city, we know that we have a symbiotic relationship.”
Considering the cost of the billboard, the university is unlikely to concede easily to taking it down. Nonetheless, while drivers do bear the responsibility of remaining concentrated on the road, the presence of digital billboard flashing messages every 15 seconds is not necessarily a great way to ensure that drivers will maintain their concentration in its presence. On the other hand, Michigan athletics are a key economic stimulant within Ann Arbor, providing the city with many external benefits in result. Thus, the city would be wise to proceed cautiously when voicing their complaints in regards to the actions of the athletic department moving forward.