UMass football’s move last year into the Division 1 Mid-American Conference still has the potential to focus statewide attention on the university itself. The sometimes neglected UMass Amherst would benefit from a higher profile, improved campus spirit, and greater excitement among alumni donors. But since the university announced it would be spending up to $9 million a year to play in a more competitive league, and thus moving its games from its aging stadium in Amherst to 68,756-seat Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, many on campus and beyond have raised questions about the costs and benefits. This year, fans have a chance to answer those questions — with their feet.
Before the start of the season, the National Collegiate Athletic Association formally designated UMass a bowl-eligible school, but with an asterisk: The team must draw more fans. Right now, any thoughts of a bowl game are premature. The team went a dismal 1-11 last season and is 0-2 so far this year, including a dispiriting loss at Gillette on Saturday to the University of Maine. Of more urgent concern is the team’s failure to draw more fans. After averaging 13,008 spectators per game in 2011 in Amherst, average attendance last season at Gillette dropped to 10,902. That’s not entirely surprising, given that fewer students are likely to make the drive to Foxborough, but it prompted the NCAA to approve UMass’s promotion with a warning. It must average 15,000 fans a game this season. If it doesn’t, it will enter a 10-year probationary period.
It’s a challenge that fans should accept. If they don’t, the football team probably won’t retain the support of the broader university community to wait out a 10-year NCAA probation. Already, grumbling is rising among faculty about how the eventual $9 million-per-year investment — $7.1 million last year — could be better spent on academic matters. Further complicating the discussion is research connecting football to serious brain injuries among players — a concern that the whole sport must address even as individual college football programs press forward.
On Saturday, for the first home game of the season, UMass barely exceeded the NCAA target, drawing a reported 15,624 fans. The hill will only get steeper as the season goes on, especially if the team continues to underperform. But the UMass Minutemen carry the state’s name in to battle, and this is a challenge that football-loving students, alumni, and other fans in Massachusetts should embrace.