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In move up, UMass football sees empty seats, high costs

Empty seats at Gillette, high costs mar move to elite competition

No one responsible for investing millions of public dollars to upgrade the University of Massachusetts Amherst football program and move the team’s home games to Gillette Stadium saw this coming. When the Minutemen played their first homecoming game in Foxborough — a 24-0 loss in October to Bowling Green — they drew a crowd of only 10,846 to the 68,756-seat stadium.

The sea of empty seats was especially stunning because the Minutemen had been accustomed to nearly packing their campus stadium for homecoming games. Over the previous five years, they had played before average crowds of 13,937 at the 17,000-seat McGuirk Alumni Stadium, on the UMass Amherst campus.

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The program’s precipitous attendance drop at Gillette — never more evident than when the Minutemen completed their 1-11 debut in the elite Football Bowl Subdivision by losing to Central Michigan before a paltry 6,385 — has driven up the cost of the school’s effort to enter the ranks of big-time college football and intensified concerns about the upgrade’s prospects for success.

With students and taxpayers picking up the tab for at least some of the cost overruns, the lower-than-expected attendance has prompted some to wonder whether UMass should reconsider its plan to transform the Minutemen into a national football program.

“I think we certainly need to get out of the FBS experiment,’’ said Max Page, an architecture professor who co-chairs a campus committee examining the cost. “There is a feeling of urgency because of the disastrous attendance this year, which contributed to higher costs than we expected. They already were bad enough.’’

By nearly every indication, it appears UMass alumni, whose support for the upgrade was considered vital, have yet to embrace the initiative.

“We have long been told that one important reason alumni support for UMass is so mixed is that we didn’t play FBS football,’’ said Ernest May, head of the university’s Faculty Senate. “Well, we have now played FBS football in a great venue located right in the backyard of where most of where our alumni live, and the silence was deafening.’’

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Subpar ticket sales have contributed to a $715,000 cost overrun, increasing the budget for the football program’s inaugural season in the Mid-American Athletic Conference to more than $7.1 million — up from $5.4 million in 2011.

By that measure, the university spent an additional $1.7 million this season, only for the average attendance to decrease to 10,902 from 13,008 the previous year. (In 2011, the Minutemen drew 41,018 to four home games on campus and 24,022 to a “home’’ game against New Hampshire at Gillette.)

Students and taxpayers will fund about $5 million of the $7.1 million budget through institutional support, including student fees and direct public subsidies.

“One thing we have learned is that it’s going to take us a while longer than we had perhaps anticipated to build a regular fan base,’’ UMass athletic director John McCutcheon said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.’’

With the vast majority of UMass-Amherst’s 400,000 Massachusetts alumni living in the eastern part of the state, school officials had projected average crowds at Gillette of about 20,000. Instead, attendance dropped by 7 percent from the 11,737 the Minutemen had averaged on campus the previous five years.

UMass-Amherst chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, who inherited the football plan when he took office last summer, said he was generally satisfied with the inaugural season and will evaluate the initiative annually. He attributed the lackluster ticket sales in part to the leadership transition from the previous chancellor, Robert Holub, who spearheaded the upgrade.

“If this keeps up, then it will become a concern,’’ Subbaswamy said. “But we are still in the very early stages of the transition.’’

Bill DeFlavio, a UMass Hall of Famer who was an All-America lineman for the Minutemen in 1971 and heads the Friends of UMass Football, said the school’s alumni are not naturally interested in games against new conference opponents such as Bowling Green, Central Michigan, and Buffalo.

The Minutemen previously had played regional rivals such as New Hampshire, Maine, and Rhode Island.

“There are plenty of alumni out there, and the university put a tremendous amount of effort into promoting the games at Gillette,’’ DeFlavio said. “But it just hasn’t resonated enough to put people in the seats. I don’t know what the answer is.’’

While the university pursues transforming the Minutemen into a national football power, a group of opponents called on the school during a Faculty Senate meeting Tuesday to re-examine its commitment, with an eye toward scaling back or abolishing the program. Some cited a recent study that put the program’s total cost this year at $8.2 million, including a debt payment for $34 million in improvements to the campus stadium.

“That money comes directly from the operating budget and could be used for hiring faculty or improving student services,’’ said Page, the architecture professor who sits on the ad hoc campus committee.

Page’s co-chair, finance professor Nelson Lacey, struck a moderate tone. He supported the move from the lower-tier Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division 1-AA) to the FBS and Gillette as a way to reduce the football program’s annual deficit.

“It’s much too soon to make a call as to whether this was a good decision for the campus and university,’’ Lacey said.

McCutcheon said the school plans to address the dismal ticket sales by stepping up its outreach to alumni, expanding a successful group sales program, encouraging greater student involvement, and trying to win back fans in western Massachusetts who felt abandoned by the move.

The university has a five-year contract to play home games at Gillette. The deal calls for the Minutemen to play their full home schedules in Foxborough through next season, then play at least four games a year there through 2016.

With UMass planning to schedule at least one game a season on campus beginning in 2014, the long-term question remains: will persistent meager ticket sales at Gillette increase pressure on university leaders to fully return the program to Amherst in 2017?

“In terms of Gillette itself, the jury is still out because we haven’t completely mobilized the alumni yet,’’ Subbaswamy said. “We will retool and try to get more alumni engaged.’’

Student support also lagged, particularly after the opener at Gillette drew the largest crowd of the season (16,304).

“I think it is generally hard to get people to attend any event in its infancy,’’ student government president Ashkay Kapoor said. “While the attendance numbers were not as great as we had expected, they were still substantial and I am confident they will increase in the coming years as the football program becomes more established.’’

McCutcheon said the program’s financial strength will improve next year, when the Minutemen receive large sums to play road games against Wisconsin ($900,000) and Kansas State ($750,000).

He predicted the team’s performance also will progress as the school recruits higher-caliber players, drawn in part by a new training facility that will form the centerpiece of improvements to the campus stadium.

Meanwhile, campus factions will continue to debate the program’s future.

“There certainly will be a good bit of disagreement on campus because there was controversy in the first place about joining the FBS at all,’’ Subbaswamy said. “I fully expect a healthy debate, as is typical on our campus.’’

Bob Hohler can be reached at hohler@globe.com.

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