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UMass’ football move called a ‘huge financial disaster’

Though ticket sales rose at Gillette in ’13, UMass averaged only 15,830 for home games, below school projections.

robert e. klein for the globe/File

Though ticket sales rose at Gillette in ’13, UMass averaged only 15,830 for home games, below school projections.

Students and taxpayers have spent $1 million more than projected to help fund the first two seasons of the UMass Amherst football team’s ambitious — and so far disappointing — upgrade to elite collegiate competition, according to a report presented Thursday to the university’s Faculty Senate.

The subsidy, known as institutional support, is expected to exceed projections by an additional $600,000 next season, reaching $5.1 million of the $7.8 million football budget. The overrun is considered a reflection of the Minutemen’s struggle to generate enthusiasm for the upgrade, which included moving most of the team’s home games to Gillette Stadium.

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The report triggered a new round of complaints that UMass leaders invested scarce public dollars that could have been better spent when they elevated the football team in 2012 to the NCAA’s top Football Bowl Subdivision.

“What becomes clearer each year is that this is a huge financial disaster for the university,’’ said Max Page, a co-chairman of the school’s Ad Hoc Committee on FBS Football, which prepared the report.

The committee is composed of faculty, students, and staff, including leaders of the athletic department.

“The promises that were made are not panning out,’’ said Page, an art and history professor.

Athletic department spokesman John Sinnett said it’s too soon to pass judgment on a lengthy commitment. The Minutemen are two years into a five-year agreement with Gillette Stadium, and UMass administrators continue to believe the program will thrive over time.

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In launching the upgrade, school officials projected the football team would generate an annual budget surplus greater than $1 million by 2018.

“This is a long-term project,’’ Sinnett said. “We made certain estimates that will change over time, especially where there is a great deal of transition involved. You need time to build the infrastructure’’

University officials said the report should not be viewed as a definitive portrait of the program’s financial status. They said the football budget would have increased even if the Minutemen had remained in the lower Football Championship Subdivision. They also said that much of the institutional support would not be used for educational purposes if football were eliminated because student athletic fees would be dedicated to other athletic programs and tuition waivers for football players would not be available to other students.

No one disputes, however, that the team’s performance has fallen short of expectations. The Minutemen have posted 1-11 records in each of the first two seasons in the tougher Mid-American Conference. The on-field performance was particularly disappointing this year, as the Minutemen squandered chances to beat winless Western Michigan (a 31-30 loss) and struggling Akron (a 14-13 defeat) at Gillette.

UMass improved defensively, surrendering an average of 33 points per game, down from 40.2 in 2012. But they scored only 11.7 points per game, a drop from 12.7 the previous year.

“Obviously, the record hasn’t been what we would have liked,’’ Sinnett said. “But this is something that we and the players are committed to, and at the end of the day it can help promote the university.’’

Ticket sales at Gillette improved from an average of 10,901 in 2012 to 15,830 in 2013, the highest ever for a UMass football team. Still, attendance remained significantly lower than school officials had projected.

“My personal view is that the program is off to a weak start,’’ said Nelson Lacey, who co-chaired the committee that produced the report. “This isn’t terribly surprising given that it will take some time for young recruits to get winning experience. But it is disappointing.’’

Lacey, a professor of finance, said he would prefer to evaluate the upgrade after three to five years. He said he is not opposed to the university increasing its football budget in the early years of the upgrade.

“Spending more to build the program is a good idea if the extra spending creates benefits such as guarantees, ticket sales, and additional giving,’’ Lacey said.

The guarantees include Penn State paying UMass $850,000 to play there next season. The Minutemen are scheduled to open the 2014 season at Gillette against Boston College, which school officials hope builds interest in the program.

UMass also will resume playing in Amherst for the first time since 2011. The Minutemen are scheduled to play three games in refurbished McGuirk Stadium, which will please many fans who felt abandoned by the move to Gillette.

As part of the upgrade, UMass built a new football training facility and made improvements to the McGuirk press box, which will require the school next year to begin paying an annual $2.2 million debt service on the projects.

Faculty members who oppose the upgrade described it in a written assessment as “a costly ‘Hail Mary’ pass that looks as if it is bound to fall incomplete.’’

Supporters, meanwhile, said the initiative has begun to pay dividends. Last summer, two UMass alumni who are football supporters, Ed Ward and Martin Jacobson, each committed $2.5 million to the athletic department.

Sinnett said the hope is that the football team replicates the recent success of the UMass men’s basketball squad, which this season has been ranked in the Top 25 nationally, five years after coach Derek Kellogg began a rebuilding effort.

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

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