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COLLEGE FOOTBALL

UMass hopes decision to play football will kickstart desperately needed drive toward relevance and riches

UMass will play football this fall, with the blessing of its chancellor, so long as any expenses are offset by revenues.
UMass will play football this fall, with the blessing of its chancellor, so long as any expenses are offset by revenues.Jessica Hill/Associated Press

Here come the UMass Minutemen, one of the losingest teams in college football, daring to return to action during the pandemic as they reach for relevance and a richer future for their long-slumping program.

There will be no big-money bowl game or conference title to pursue when the state university system’s flagship football team opens a truncated, previously postponed season sometime this month against an undetermined opponent.

In fact, there will be little, if any, chance of UMass reaping a substantial financial reward from the football program, whose dependence on millions of dollars of institutional support has long been a lightning rod for dispute.

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Athletic director Ryan Bamford said in an interview that the school’s chancellor, Kumble Subbaswamy, approved the team reversing course and returning to play so long as any expenses are offset by revenues.

“Breaking even” appear to be the watchwords for the 2020 Minutemen.

"We’re going to be smart about it and try not to take on too much," Bamford said.

Unlike Boston College, the only other New England football team playing this season, UMass competes independently and has no lucrative conference affiliation. BC has received about $30 million a year from the Atlantic Coast Conference. For UMass, the financial margins are razor thin.

"It’s hard to fathom exactly what they’re trying to do financially," sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College professor who has focused on college athletics, said in an interview. "They’re probably going to end up spending more money than they generate."

Still, a light of hope glimmers for the program’s enthusiastic supporters. For the first time since UMass began competing in the top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision in 2012, the Minutemen — with the quality of potential opponents unknown — could win more games in a season than they lose, a possible breakthrough for a program in desperate need of victories.

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Lots of them. Otherwise, the wait will grow longer for the university to fulfill its goal of making UMass football financially self-sufficient.

"We’ve got to start winning games, there’s no doubt about it," Bamford said. "Everybody feels that."

The Minutemen have won 19 games and lost 77 since they joined the FBS. The slump has hurt ticket sales, with the average home attendance sinking to 9,489 last year, lower than all but one of the 130 FBS teams and the lowest for UMass since 2005. The decline has come despite the university spending $53 million to upgrade the stadium and campus football facilities.

No tickets will be sold this season if UMass finds an opponent willing to travel to McGuirk Alumni Stadium on campus. Nor will the acclaimed UMass Minuteman Marching Band be present. But FloSports will stream home games, NESN may broadcast them, and sponsors may be pleased, as the school’s young players — about two-thirds are freshmen and sophomores — try to lift the program a rung closer to respectability.

There will be no fans to fire up when UMass finally takes the field for the 2020 season.
There will be no fans to fire up when UMass finally takes the field for the 2020 season.Jessica Hill/Associated Press

Bamford said the decision to reverse his August postponement of the season was driven in no small part by the players themselves. They began arriving on campus in June and have complied with the school’s COVID-19 protocols, recording only two positive results for the virus in more than 2,000 tests.

In September, the players began campaigning on social media to return to action. Then they appealed directly to Bamford.

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"They looked at me and said, 'We’ve done everything you’ve asked of us. Will we have the opportunity to play?’ ” he said.

Now, Bamford said, "They’re foaming at the mouth to get going."

UMass is hardly an outlier in returning to the gridiron. All 10 FBS conferences have decided to play this fall, as have four of the six other independent schools: Notre Dame, Army, Brigham Young, and Liberty.

But very few teams face a greater turnaround challenge than UMass — a predicament that has persisted since the school’s decision in 2011 to stop competing in the second tier of college football, where the Minutemen won the national title in 1998 and reached the title game again in 2006. The blueprint called for the FBS upgrade to eliminate the football program’s need for institutional subsidies by now.

Instead, a harsh reality ensued. UMass played four years in the FBS-level Mid-American Conference, but chose to compete independently in the elite national ranks beginning in 2016 rather than become a full conference member and move the vast majority of its sports programs to the MAC. Neither format has bred success, leaving Bamford, who arrived in 2015, to wonder what data his predecessors analyzed before they predicted years ago that the football program would be thriving by now.

"Projections are sometimes healthy, but in this case it was probably a dangerous thing to do," Bamford said.

‘Projections are sometimes healthy, but in this case it was probably a dangerous thing to do.’

UMass AD Ryan Bamford on the decision to move to FBS level, then become independent

To Zimbalist, the school’s FBS move was flawed from the start. The only FBS teams that regularly prosper, he said, are those that rank in the top 30 of the Power 5 conferences.

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"UMass playing in the FBS has never made sense financially," Zimbalist said. "Every time they have made some new move, nothing has paid off for them."

To the contrary, Bamford said, declaring the UMass football program was making financial progress before the pandemic. Last year, he said, the program received about $4.2 million, or nearly 47 percent, of its $9 million budget from university operating funds and student fees. That’s a marked improvement from the program relying in 2012 on school subsidies for $4.9 million, or 89 percent, of its $5.5 million budget.

The football budget, however, tells only part of the program’s financial burden on the school, whose total budget is $1.3 billion. UMass also is obligated through 2045 to make annual debt payments on nearly $48 million it borrowed to upgrade the team’s football facilities. And the university has spent more than $10 million to date on additional women’s athletic scholarships to meet Title IX equity requirements after the FBS move increased the football team’s allotment of scholarships to 85 from 63.

In better news, Bamford said, fundraising for the athletic department and football program has been bountiful — the best ever during the previous two fiscal years. More than $6.1 million was donated for athletics during the period, including $800,000 earmarked for the football program. An additional $6 million has been pledged this year for football facility improvements.

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"That tells a good story about where people think the program is going," Bamford said.

How far it will go may depend on how quickly UMass can start winning consistently and gain the necessary prominence to command lucrative media contracts and sponsorships. Until then, the program’s chief outside revenue source is likely to remain guaranteed payments from major college teams to fill openings on their schedules.

In 2016, the Minutemen received $1.5 million to visit the University of South Carolina, where they lost, 34-28. They picked up an additional $1.25 million that year to travel to the University of Florida, where they were defeated, 24-7. And Georgia paid them $1.5 million in 2018 to go south, where they lost, 66-27.

A big-time TD catch by Andy Isabella wasn't enough for the Minutemen against Georgia in 2018. They lost, 66-27.
A big-time TD catch by Andy Isabella wasn't enough for the Minutemen against Georgia in 2018. They lost, 66-27.Curtis Compton

This fall, UMass was scheduled to receive $1.9 million — one of the highest guarantee payments in college football history — to play Auburn in Alabama. But the Southeastern Conference, of which Auburn is a member, announced in late July its teams would not play non-conference games in the 2020 regular season. Two weeks later, UMass announced its original decision to postpone its season.

It’s unclear if UMass ever will cash the $1.9 million check. Bamford said he has spoken to Auburn about the possibility of rescheduling the game in a future year. "It remains unresolved," he said.

Either way, the Minutemen have already locked in an array of future big-money guarantees: $1.5 million from Florida State and $1.3 million from Pittsburgh in 2021; $1.7 million from Texas A&M in 2022; $1.95 million from Auburn (an additional matchup previously scheduled) and $1.6 million from Penn State in 2023; and $1.9 million from Georgia in 2024.

To Bamford’s misfortune, the future payments won’t solve the pandemic-driven budget crisis he faces today — a department-wide crunch that might have been avoided had the football program already succeeded at the FBS level.

With revenues withering because of coronavirus restrictions, Bamford has needed to reduce work hours and impose furloughs on 57 of the department’s 130 employees, among other belt-tightening. He has volunteered to take a temporary 10 percent pay cut, after earning $428,000 last year, as have men’s basketball coach Matt McCall, who made $827,000 last year, and football coach Walt Bell, who earned $628,000. Other coaches and administrators have accepted reductions ranging from 2 percent to 10 percent.

Yet deeper cuts may loom. The university, which subsidizes $27 million of the athletic department’s $40 million budget, has already cut $5 million in institutional support. And Bamford foresees the school possibly cutting an additional $3 million.

"That’s a challenging thing to overcome in one fiscal year," he said.

Whether the football team can help remains to be seen. Bamford said he hopes the Minutemen can open an abbreviated season Oct. 17, and perhaps play every other week through early December. In the best of outcomes, they would do better than break even.


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