UMass Football Goes Big… Err, to the MAC Anyway

UMass is hitting the big time. In case you missed the news — which was hard to do if you picked up a Herald yesterday— the state university in Amherst plans to jump its football team up to the Division 1A level (officially called the Football Bowl Subdivision), starting in the 2012 season. The Minutemen will be joining the Mid-American Conference, better known as the MAC, and playing their games at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. The idea is to polish UMass’s reputation and pump up its revenues with new tickets sales from the Patriots’ state-of-the-art football palace.

This is a terrible, terrible idea. For lots of reasons. But let’s start with the one that matters most: money. As has been reported, UMass officials say the move will cost $2.5 million per year, mostly to pay for an enhanced coaching staff and the increased number of scholarships the school will have to offer (football scholarships will jump from 63 to 85, which, as part of Title IX, means that UMass will also have to add 22 scholarships for women’s sports). But that doesn’t include the cash UMass will have to spend on upgrading its facilities back on campus, or the renovations to their current stadium in Amherst that UMass athletic director John McCutcheon has been talking about. “They’re dreaming,” Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College, told me. He expects the move to cost much more than $2.5 million per year.

“When you look at all of the costs and you look at the potential payoff for a team that’s going to the MAC… you have to say it’s reckless,” he said.

UMass expects to make up the money by selling tickets to Gillette… but, really, who’s going to drive out to Foxoboro to watch the Minutemen play Ball State? They’re joining the MAC, not the SEC. The Patriots’ stadium is two hours — two hours! — from the Amherst campus and a 45-minute drive (if you’re lucky) from Boston. As it is, UMass only averages 13,005 people per game. How is making it wildly inconvenient for the school’s most ardent fans to see the team going to help that number go up?

And that’s not even taking into account how awful the environment at Gillette is going to be. Even if, say, 20,000 people were to show at each game, the stadium would still be two-thirds empty. The place will be all the more dead for its lack of college students — and, without doubt, there will be many fewer students in attendance. Anyone who wants to argue this point needs to go find me more than 15 college kids willing to wake up early on a Saturday morning, shake off their hangovers, go sit on a bus for two hours, watch two bad football teams play (and, I’m sorry, even good MAC football is not good football), and then drive two hours back to campus.

It should be noted that, in order to maintain its Division 1A status, UMass must average 15,000 fans per game at least once every two year. That means, despite losing students and other hardcore Amherst locals, the school needs to increase its attendance by 2,000. And how many Bostonians will actually go? I’m a huge Patriots fan, yet mostly prefer watching them play on TV to schlepping out from Boston to Foxboro. And that’s for the Patriots! “I think they’ll give away the tickets,” to reach the 15,000 threshold, Zimbalist said. “They’ll get 15,000 people in the stadium by hook or by crook.”

Zimbalist added that while it’s tempting to compare UMass’s move to the very successful jump UConn made to Division 1A a few years back, there are key differences: first, UConn joined the Big East, not the MAC. Next, Connecticut plays in Hartford, a big city, not Foxboro, an isolated town. Third, the Huskies opened a new stadium, designed to fit them — unlike Gillette, which will fit UMass about as well as a size 15 shoe fits a toddler.

But maybe the biggest joke is that this just lays bare what big business college sports is. Apologies if this sounds sappy, but wasn’t the point of UMass having a football team in the first place to lift school spirit and bring the community together? It’s not like the Minutemen are ever going to compete for the national championship, after all. Or even probably drive that much revenue. Now they’ll be playing two hours from campus, and probably hardly any students will go. But hey, UMass will be big time.