Legions of Massachusetts drivers express their devotion to the Red Sox, Bruins, the Cape and the Islands, and right whales with specialty license plates. Then there’s the UMass Amherst Minuteman.
Since the University of Massachusetts specialty plates debuted in 2013 to raise money for the school’s alumni association, the campaign has resulted in sales of only 1,554 plates. The alumni group last month began giving away the plates as it faces an October deadline to double the number of plate holders or be forced to scrap the program.
The plate, which features the school mascot and the message “You were. You are. UMass,” isn’t the only specialty plate puttering along in the slow lane. Those touting the Basketball Hall of Fame and the state’s Blackstone Valley region also have seen lackluster sales.
UMass’s flagship campus is stepping up efforts to promote the school’s plates as part of a strategy to promote its brand and strengthen connections with its 250,000 graduates, about half of whom live in Massachusetts.
In addition to providing some people with plates at no charge, the alumni association is enlisting the athletics department, student affairs, and other campus groups to tout them. The group’s executive director, JC Schnabl, defends the initiative.
“This plate program has put the university out there in a way that we could have only dreamed about,” Schnabl said.
The goal of specialty plates, which cost drivers an extra $40 every two years, is to make money for the nonprofits and other organizations they advertise. UMass’s plates so far have garnered about $85,000 for the college, the lowest of all current specialty plates, according to Registry of Motor Vehicles data.
To be sure, many of the highest-earning plates have been around for years. The plates supporting the Cape and Islands have generated $21 million since their introduction in 1996; and the whale plate has earned $19 million for local environmental groups during the past 19 years.
Angela Guillemette, who graduated from UMass in 2003, preregistered for a plate to give back to her alma mater.
“I don’t typically have a ton of extra cash to send back to the school, but it holds me to a schedule every couple of years,” she said.
Guillemette, who works just over the border in New Hampshire, said many people don’t recognize the plate. “I usually get the ‘what’s that for?’ ” she said.
Another alumni, Scott Sacco of Norwood, has had the opposite experience. As he drives down the Mass. Pike to his daughter’s lacrosse games at UMass, people honk and wave.
“It’s going to take time” to build up alumni support, said Sacco, who graduated in 1984 and is one of 10 in his family who attended or still attend UMass. “We’re never going to have the kind of affiliation that you have at a place like the University of Georgia or the University of Alabama.”
Former alumni association board member Ed Rubin said he refuses to buy a UMass specialty plate because he believes the program lacked a clear plan from the beginning.
‘It’s going to take time’ to build up alumni support.Scott Sacco, a graduate of UMass Amherst
“They didn’t have a business plan, they went back and forth, they spent a lot of money,” said Rubin, who left the board in 2007 because of other disagreements.
Schnabl counters that the program, which began before he was hired in 2012, has always had a strategy, which now includes mailing plates to people to save them a trip to the Registry.
Ed Blaguszewski, a university spokesman, said the alumni association does not track costs associated with the plate program because they are rolled into the association’s overall budget for promotions.
The Legislature in 2003 recommended creating a UMass plate, but it wasn’t until 10 years later that the alumni association presold the 1,500 plates necessary for the Registry to print a new plate. The association was also required to submit a $100,000 bond to the Registry. It is the only university in the state with a speciality plate. The association has to sell 3,000 total plates by October — two years from the program’s launch — to keep it in production. If not, the Registry could stop making the plates and could keep all or some of the $100,000 deposit.
A Registry spokeswoman said the agency has never taken any of those actions against specialty plate groups that don’t meet the threshold.
In its recent offer, the alumni group e-mailed graduates to invite them to “accept a UMass Amherst license plate on us!” As part of the deal, the association is paying the $40 special plate fee and $20 swap fee, according to the e-mail. Of that, $28 comes back to the school so the amount each plate actually costs the association $32.
So far, the association has paid $2,144 to buy free plates for supporters. The offer is considered a thank-you gift to people who have supported or brought attention to the school, including those who have bought football tickets, donated money, or won an award.
“Those are very targeted invitations,” Schnabl said.
In the past the alumni group has suffered from weak participation. In 2007, just 3 percent of graduates — 210,000 at the time — were members. The group dropped its $40 membership fee five years ago and now considers all UMass Amherst graduates members, said Blaguszewski, the university spokesman. The association could not give an estimate for the current number of active participants.
The UMass Amherst plate apparently has proven popular with one constituency: university employees. A Flikr page of license plates features selfies of many of them, including UMass Amherst chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, touting plate Number 1 on his Lexus.Contact Laura Krantz at firstname.lastname@example.org.