In 2012, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst began playing in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Football Bowl Subdivision, the highest level of the sport. Most state flagship universities play in this 128-team class and the Minutemen understandably hoped to bask in the bright lights and garner a bigger piece of the action in the multibillion-dollar college sports industry.
Before that, they played in the 122-team Football Championship Subdivision, a less-celebrated rung of Division 1, where this year’s top teams included New Hampshire, Illinois State, North Dakota State, and Coastal Carolina.
The cost of moving to the higher level was steep. UMass had to assure many more football scholarships, meet minimum attendance requirements, and make facility improvements. But instead of leaping into glory, UMass hurled itself into a money pit. A program that cost the school $3.1 million in 2011 in direct support and student fees is projected to cost $8.6 million next year — even after projected revenues are taken into account — according a recently released faculty report. The school has precious little to show for it, with a 5-31 record in the last three years and a fan base in suspended animation. The Minutemen averaged 16,008 fans this season, barely more than last year’s home game average of 15,830.
Pushing athletes to enhance the university’s brand on the field often leads to problems in the classroom, and that pattern held true at UMass Amherst. The Globe reported last fall that the Minutemen’s academic scores were among the lowest in Division 1. The university says scores have risen since then, but it is also questionable why a university such as UMass, with no major tradition to start with, should invest so much fresh capital into a sport that shows signs of losing its traditional hold on American families as evidence mounts about the risks of long-term brain damage from the game. An Associated Press poll in August found that 44 percent of parents were uncomfortable with their child playing football and a Bloomberg poll last month found that 50 percent of Americans would not want a young son playing football. UMass is unwisely investing in a cultural edifice that is showing the first signs of crumbling.
UMass officials argue that football spending is only a tiny fraction of its $1 billion operating budget and that revenues have increased with the move up to the FBS. For instance, university officials say the team will get $1 million for a trip to Notre Dame next season and $1.25 million to travel to Florida in 2016. It also said alumni donations to the athletic program, relatively low in the FCS, have already totaled $5 million in the FBS. They believe that with a couple more years, and a few more million dollars, a tradition can be built.
But that is still too little, too late. Football losses are nearing $10 million a year, an alarming note in an otherwise laudatory period for UMass Amherst. The school is enjoying one of the most dramatic rises in academic prestige in the nation, rising 22 spaces since 2010, into a tie for 30th place among public universities in the US News rankings. It is enjoying an unprecedented two-year freeze on tuition and fees, after winning renewed support from the Legislature.
But taxpayers can’t be expected to pay for an extravagant football program indefinitely, especially as the changing economics of college football make it even more expensive for UMass to stay competitive.
Although Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy promised a “balanced, modest approach” in football, any notion of balance has been permanently destroyed by the spending arms race. Ohio State, which is playing for the national championship, spent $400,000 per scholarship football player in 2012, according to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics — six times more than UMass.
Before football costs climb even higher, the Minutemen should consider dropping to a lower division of the NCAA or killing the sport altogether. Other schools have eliminated their programs and have thrived: Boston University and Northeastern cut football but are consistently listed among the top 50 national universities in US News and World Report — higher than UMass Amherst. Big-time pigskin may have been an experiment worth trying, but now UMass should get out of bowl-level football before being bowled over.
Clarification: A photo that ran in an earlier version of this editorial showed an empty section of seats reserved for the visiting team at a 2012 UMass Minuteman game at Gillette Stadium. The Minutemen averaged 16,008 fans at home games this season, slightly more than last year’s home game average of 15,830.