UMass Amherst football plays its second home game of the season Saturday. The team is – so far – struggling through its second year in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the top division of college football.
To qualify for the league, UMass is playing its home games at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, while it upgrades its Amherst stadium.
The school is pumping more money into football, and some faculty are questioning the investment. But others are calling for patience.
Last year, the UMass Minutemen finished their first FBS season with one win and eleven losses, and an average home attendance of under 11,000 in a stadium meant to hold 68,000 Patriots fans. These numbers present a conundrum, says finance professor Nelson Lacey, who co-chairs a faculty senate committee on football.
“And so we get this catch-22 where unless we start winning, we’re probably not going to build a huge amount of support to get lots and lots of people in the stadium,” says Lacey. “But how do you get to the point where you start winning?”
The first problem is attendance. The school must average 15,000 fans at home this season to avoid a ten-year probation by the NCAA, which, among other things, could make the team ineligible for bowls.
UMass just barely met the goal in its home opener against the University of Maine. And the school sponsored plenty of pre-game hype outside Gillette Stadium. At the tailgate, food is grilling, kids jump in a bouncy house, and the marching band makes its way through the crowd.
Some tailgaters are making the most of the event, including fans from western and central Massachusetts, who lamented being away from Amherst. Muriel Popham of Gardner came to see her daughter play in the band.
“It’s hard to come here,” Popham says. “It’s a different feeling, to me it is. It feels home when you go to UMass, I just love it, but what can you do? You got to follow your child where she goes.”.
Part of UMass’ decision to play home games at Gillette was to attract fans from greater Boston. That hasn’t happened to the extent the school hoped. Fan Chris Mellon of Waltham says it will take a winning team to get eastern Massachusetts interested.
“Everybody loves a winner in Boston, so when you start winning, that gets people out here,” Mellon says.
Easier said than done. The Minutemen are 0-3 so far this season, including its loss to Maine in the home opener. Adding to the embarrassment of that loss, Maine is in the lower FCS league, which UMass left over a year ago.
UMass head coach Charley Molnar says the team’s struggles are due in part to the players’ inexperience.
“We’re still playing an awful lot of young guys, that’s not an excuse, that’s the reality,” Molnar says. “And the young guys make the bulk of the mistakes.”
There are undeniably growing pains. Football boosters and even some skeptical faculty argue it’s necessary to give the team some time to get things going.
“We’re now in year two,” says professor Nelson Lacey. “I would say that if we get to three, four, five years out and we’re in the same position we are now, or in a worse position, then I think that it’s time to wonder about whether this experiment was a success.”
But others argue that the program shouldn’t be given that time. Art professor Max Page is the other co-chair of the faculty’s football committee.
“I think many critics are not patient because we have no expectation that it will work after one year, two years, three years, five years, or seven years,” Page says.
Page points to increasing costs as a reason to reconsider the move to FBS. Depending on how you count it, the football budget was around $8 million last year. That’s compared to over $4 million two years ago. Page says the extra investment is not worth it.
“It’s simply spending scarce dollars on something that’s not absolutely essential to the mission of the University,” Page says.
Many faculty are on Page’s side. Last January, the faculty senate narrowly rejected a measure to reconsider the football move. And Page thinks the senate will take up the subject again after this season.
UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subaswammy is not fazed by that resistance.
“I think it’s silly to turn around after two seasons and say, ‘We give up,’” Subaswammy says. “So, no. We’re staying all in. The investments in facilities was also badly needed, so we have no reason at this point to turn back or do anything. I think it’s on course, so let’s put the doubters to the test 5 years from now.”
Even in 5 years, UMass may not see a profit from football. According to the NCAA, only 22 of the 120 FBS schools profited from their football programs in 2010. Subaswammy says that’s a narrow view of a football team’s value.
“The broader issue of the marketing and the public awareness of the institution that comes with college football, which is so popular in this country, justifies what we’re doing,” he says.
Subaswammy was not the chancellor when the decision to move to big time football was made. But now he stands by it.
UMass is far from the first school to make this move, and its struggle isn’t unique. Only a handful of the schools that have moved to the top division since 1978 have improved on the field. That’s according to ESPN’s Kristi Dosh who wrote a book on the business of college football.
Dosha says a winning team can get nationally televised games, which can boost application numbers. But she says UMass will soon have to assess whether on-field success is possible.
“A year or two, it’s tough to see how things are going to go. Three years, I think you’re starting to get a good idea,” says Dosh. “At five years, I think you know one way or another whether this is going to work out.”.
Next season is year 3 for UMass, and it could be a turning point. The team will return to McGuirk Stadium in Amherst for 3 of its 6 home games. Muriel Popham says that will bring back some dedicated fans.
“There’ll be a lot of people there,” Popham says. “And – plus – the old folks that used to sit right next to us were very upset that it was coming here, so I guarantee they’ll be back there.”
UMass is banking on that guarantee in order to benefit from its football gamble.