It sounds like a good idea and it looks really good on paper.
The University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) announced one of the worst-kept secrets in New England sports when it unveiled its plans to jump to the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) – formerly known as Division 1A – on April 20.
The move puts the Minutemen in the top level of collegiate football and places them in a conference, the Mid-American Conference (MAC), that is on the way up.
The biggest reason why UMass is making the move is pretty obvious. There is money to be made, a lot of money. UMass has gotten a whiff of those big FBS dollars in the past, including last year when the University of Michigan had enough money to pay the Minutemen $550,000 to travel to Ann Arbor.
Now, joining the MAC doesn’t guarantee significant riches, but it does offer opportunities for UMass to bank quite a bit of cash. According to the Orlando Sentinel’s 2009 blog, MAC teams generated anywhere from $17.4 million to nearly $27.5 million in the 2007-2008 season.
The chance to play in a nationally televised bowl game is also a tempting carrot that was dangled in front of UMass. The MAC currently is tied into the Little Caesar’s Bowl – formerly the Motor City Bowl – with the Big Ten, as well as the less popular GoDaddy.com Bowl and Human-itarian Bowl. Those games all have a potential pay out of $750,000 just for showing up.
What’s more, interest in college football is continuing to grow in New England. Boston College, which was the sole FBS school in New England until 2000, could be pointed to as a contributor, having been to a bowl game 12 years in a row, winning eight straight from 2000 to 2007.
The University of Connecticut has dubbed itself the “fastest rising football program” and actually played in the Bowl Championship Series’ (BCS) Fiesta Bowl after winning the Big East last season – albeit with a mediocre 8-5 record.
It seems like a no-brainer to jump on that train. But here is where I think UMass hits a snag.
According to the NCAA’s FBS Membership Requirements, the school must “average at least 15,000 in actual or paid attendance for all home football contests over a rolling two-year period.”
UMass officially ranked 20th in the NCAA Football Champion-ship Subdivision (FCS) in 2010 with an average of 13,005 fans. Given the capacity numbers UMass claims for McGuirk Stadium, that means there were nearly 4,000 empty seats for UMass home games last season.
The powers that be feel they’ve found the answer to this problem by having the Minutemen play their home games at Gillette Stadium.
If the game UMass played against the University of New Hampshire last season is any indication, they’re right. That contest drew nearly 33,000 people. But that’s not even close to a realistic expectation for UMass once they become a full FBS member. Remember that the Gillette Stadium game from last year was the result of two teams in relatively close proximity that have developed a rivalry over the past few years.
Will Western Massachusetts residents be quite so willing to drive to Foxboro to see a game against Kent State, Eastern Michigan or Buffalo?
Once the novelty of Gillette Stadium wears off and students spend three-plus hours on a bus to see a home game – assuming the school offers such a service – my educated guess is no.
But never fear. UMass officials say there is a large alumni population out East that is untapped. If alumni really cared enough about UMass football, they would make it out to Amherst. Boston College fans from Western Massachusetts make the sojourn to Alumni Stadium. The Massachusetts Turnpike DOES run two ways, contrary to popular belief.
It’s time to stop sugar coating it. UMass isn’t trying to serve a new population of fans. It’s not trying to make the entire state proud of its flagship university.
With no plans to make a permanent home for the Minutemen on the campus they represent, UMass has made one thing clear: It made a business decision, plain and simple. However, in doing so, it forgot about the thing that is right on their doorstep that helps make a college football game such a unique event – the campus and its students.
Now the powers that be are relying on a fan base they hope exists out East, while alienating the one they have right here. All I can say is good luck.
This opinion was also published in all four Reminder Publications newspapers.