No Wonder UMass Football Has Holes in Attendance

The university could get booted from college football's top division if it doesn't fill the stands.

UMass officials are shocked—shocked!—that their attempt to upgrade the school's football program to the top-level Football Bowl Series Subdivision (formerly called Division 1A) isn't working, the Globe tells us this morning. Personally, I am shocked that they are shocked.

The linchpin of the plan was moving the Minutemen's home games from UMass's Amherst campus to Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. Considering that attendance at the stadium on campus last year was 13,008, school officials expected that moving the games closer to Boston, where many alumni live, would allow them to draw 20,000 per contest. Instead, attendance has dropped to 10,902. When UMass took on the mighty Chippewas of Central Michigan last month—losing 42-21—only 6,385 people bothered to show up. The Globe reports that poor tickets sales have left the school with a $715,000 cost overrun, bumping the football program's budget up to $7.1 million—$1.7 million more than UMass spent last year.

You don't need a PhD in geography to figure this one out. I said it at the time UMass made the decision, so let's review the two biggest reasons nobody is going to these games:

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It would take a seriously committed alum to brave the 45-minute drive (god willing) from Boston to Foxboro just to go watch some third-rate football. (I'm counting the Patriots as first-rate and BC as second-rate here, though that seems generous for the Eagles right now.) The bigger problem, though, is that Foxboro is a two-hour trek from Amherst. By moving the games to Gillette, school officials made it extremely onerous for anyone with an actual stake in UMass to go see the football team play. How many college students do you know who'd want to nurse their Saturday hangovers by spending four hours on a bus?

“I’m not surprised,” says Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College told me this morning, referring to the attendance numbers. “This maneuver when you put your stadium two hours away from campus has never been done before.”

He adds that UMass's current perch in the lowly Mid-American Conference doesn't help. “The problem that they have, it seems to me, is that they're in a weak FBS division. If they were able to make this change and move up to the ACC or one of the elite FBS divisions, then I would be much more optimistic.”

The really bad news is that UMass doesn't have much time to fix this. NCAA rules state—and the Globe skipped this point—that schools must average 15,000 people in attendance at least one out of every two years in order to keep their top-level FBS status. In other words, if UMass doesn't increase its attendance at Gillette Stadium next year by more than 4,000 people per game, it could get booted back down to college football's second tier, making this whole exercise a tremendous waste of time and, most importantly, public money.

Although no school has ever suffered such an ignominious fate, some have gone to great lengths to avoid it. Last year, to avoid falling below the 15,000 attendance threshold, fellow MAC member Eastern Michigan University compelled Pepsi to buy 50,000 tickets at $3 a pop as part of a distribution contract. Ball State, also in the MAC, was saved by an anonymous donor who paid about $250,000 for some 35,000 tickets, priced at $7 a piece.

Next season, UMass will have to get similarly creative. “There’s nothing that says they can’t charge a penny for a ticket, or charge $5 but also give free hot dogs,” Zimbalist says. To get people to actually schlep out to Foxboro, though, UMass official might have to check and see if there's anything that says they can't kidnap.