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UMass Bets Big On Football Program Despite Poor Attendance


From professional basketball to college football now. The University of Massachusetts Amherst last year moved into the Football Bowl Subdivision, college football's top league. The move didn't happen without growing pains. As New England Public Radio's Henry Epp reports, the challenges go beyond winning games and filling seats.

HENRY EPP, BYLINE: Outside Gillette Stadium before the home game against Miami University of Ohio, the tailgate is on, despite thick clouds and persistent drizzle. Tailgaters grill food, drink beers, and pass footballs across the parking lot.


EPP: Fan Andy DiNapoli and his friends are decked out in UMass sweatshirts, as their kids swirl around them with a football. DiNapoli thinks the move to the top division is good for UMass.

ANDY DINAPOLI: I understand that the team has moved up a division which - that's awesome for the school in general. It's awesome for Massachusetts in general that they've done that. Now the hard part is bringing the fans to the game and getting people out here and seeing what UMass football is all about.

EPP: This home game is really at the home of the New England Patriots, over 90 miles from the UMass campus. UMass is playing here while it upgrades its Amherst stadium. Gillette Stadium is meant to hold 68,000 Patriots fans, but last year, UMass averaged under 11,000 fans per game. The school needs to bring that number up to 15,000 to avoid probation from the NCAA. So far, it's reached that mark but not by much.

Besides attendance, UMass has struggled on the field. Last year, the team was 1-11 and they have yet to win a game this season. But today might be one of their few chances for a victory. Their opponent, Miami, is also winless.


EPP: Regardless of how they play, a top level college team requires a big financial commitment. The UMass football budget nearly doubled last year to about $8 million dollars, and the push for big time football came as the state cut back funding for UMass. All that new spending doesn't sit well with some faculty in Amherst. Art professor Max Page is co-chair of a faculty senate committee on football. He doesn't think the team will ever turn a profit.

MAX PAGE: Our argument has been we should never have gone in the first place, and we urge that this chancellor get out because this is an unraveling disaster.

EPP: The numbers are on Page's side. The NCAA openly admits that top tier football teams are rarely profitable. But ESPN's Kristi Dosh, who wrote a book on the business of college football, says a top-level team has value even if it doesn't make money.

KRISTI DOSH: Most schools can't afford to go out and buy the ad time to run ads or send out mailers or whatever the case may be to be able to reach potential students all over the country. But one nationally televised football game can do that.

EPP: But Dosh says any big-time football program needs years to adjust.

DOSH: A year or two, it's tough to see how things are going to go. Three years, I think you're starting to get a good idea. At five years, I think you know one way or another whether this is going to work out.

EPP: Outside the stadium, UMass Amherst chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy mingles with the tailgate crowd. Subbaswamy was not at the school when it chose to move to top level football but he dismisses critics of the program.

KUMBLE SUBBASWAMY: And I think it's silly to turn around after two seasons and say, we give up. So, no, we're staying all in. The investments in facilities was also badly needed. I think it's on course, so let's, you know, put the doubters to a test five years from now.

EPP: Next season is year three, and the team returns to Amherst for half of its home games. And things could be looking up after the game against Miami University. It wasn't pretty, but the Minutemen got some lucky breaks and pulled out a 17-10 win. For NPR News, I'm Henry Epp. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Henry is a reporter and host of All Things Considered on VPR.

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