An Aggressive Game Plan
As UMass Football Ascends, Question Marks Linger
UMass administrators say the school’s planned move up a notch to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) will provide the university with more prominence and legitimacy in the Bay State, and also improve the overall bottom line for football, meaning, at least for the immediate future, that it will likely lose less than it does now. But there are some who believe that both the math and geography — a university in Amherst and a football stadium 90 miles away in Foxborough — don’t work with this gambit.
That’s a phrase, or descriptive adjective, used quite frequently in business, sports, or, in this day and age, the business of sports. It’s been deployed to categorize everything from golf holes to NFL draft selections, and implies that, for those willing to assume risk, there are potential rewards.
It’s also been heard with reference to UMass Amherst’s recent decision to make the move from what’s known as the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) and the Colonial Athletic Assoc. (CAA) to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and the Mid-America Conference, or MAC. And it’s being used appropriately, said Jon McCutcheon, athletic director for the school.
“There are possible rewards, and there certainly are risks,” he told BusinessWest, adding quickly that what many are overlooking in the discussion of the merits of this move — and there’s been quite a bit of it — is that this phrase can and must also be applied to most all other options involving UMass and its football program, including the status quo, staying in the CAA.
“There are risks to just staying where we are, and there are fewer potential rewards,” he said, referring, in this case, to purely financial considerations.
Elaborating, McCutcheon and UMass Amherst Chancellor Robert Holub said there is movement within the CAA — some New England teams moving out or dropping football altogether, and additions coming with schools hundreds of miles to the south — that will make staying in that conference a more-expensive proposition for the university (more on that later).
Meanwhile, staying in the FCS will not offer UMass the same revenue-enhancing possibilities — from playing in a much larger stadium to securing larger guarantees for playing bigger non-conference rivals (such as Michigan, which the Minuteman played last year in Ann Arbor), to gaining a share of the MAC’s TV money from ESPN — that making the move will provide, said Holub.
“In middle conferences such as the MAC, you almost always lose money on football,” said the chancellor, who stressed repeatedly that finishing in the black is a feat reserved only for the biggest and most successful programs on the gridiron. “But you can wind up losing less. Your bottom line can be better.”
• MAC schools like Akron, Buffalo, Bowling Green, Temple (there’s a little history there from basketball), or Kent State will resonate with those abovementioned constituencies and prompt them to travel to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, where most of the UMass games will be played;
• The university can gain some attractive non-conference games with area schools like Boston College and UConn and national powers like Michigan, which certainly seem more likely to be better draws than Ball State and Western Michigan;
• The estimated 100,000 alumni living within 30 minutes of Foxborough will become regular attendees of games; or
• The 2,500 to 3,500 UMass Amherst students who attended games on campus last fall will make the trek across the state to see their school play.
Considering these questions and others, Andrew Zimbalist, the noted sports economist and professor at Smith College, summoned his own adjective to describe the university’s gambit: “problematic.”
Hinting strongly that he believes there are too many risks and not enough potential rewards from this move, Zimbalist told BusinessWest that perhaps his biggest concerns are with simple geography, or, to be more specific, the 90 miles between the Amherst campus and Gillette Stadium.
“That’s an hour-and-45-minute drive, and to me that’s a parody of what college sports have become,” said Zimbalist, author of several books, including one titled Unpaid Professionals: Commercialization and Conflict in Big-Time College Sports. “The idea in college sports is that it was an entertaining distraction for the students after a hard week of cerebral work; it was a way a school could create some school spirit and a deeper sense of community. In my knowledge, there is no other school, among the 1,000-plus schools in the NCAA, that has a football stadium, or any other kind of stadium, an hour and 45 minutes away from campus.
“The longest drive I know about is the one at UConn — it’s about a half-hour from Storrs to East Hartford,” he continued, making the first of many unfavorable comparisons to the University of Connecticut’s football upgrade to the Big East, what’s known as a BCS, or Bowl Championship Series, conference. (The Huskies played in the Fiesta Bowl in January.)
Overall, there are many other concerns beyond geography, said Zimbalist, noting everything from the cost of getting the marching band to Foxborough to the prospect of paying much more for a head coach.
“It’s a difficult transition to make even when everything is done properly and even when you upgrade to a BCS conference,” said Zimbalist. “There are no guarantees, and you end up spending a lot more money.”
For this issue, BusinessWest takes an indepth look at the game plan for UMass Amherst, and breaks down those risks and the potential rewards.
The Mid-America Conference is certainly well-named. With the exception of Temple, located in Philadelphia, the other 12 current schools are all hundreds of miles to the west of Amherst, in the middle of the country.
There are six schools in Ohio — Akron, Bowling Green, Kent State, Miami, Ohio University, and Toledo — and also three from Michigan (‘Central,’ ‘Eastern,’ and ‘Western’), Northern Illinois, Ball State in Indiana, and Buffalo in Western New York.
The addition of UMass will allow the conference to balance its divisions — seven teams in both the east and west — and, much more importantly, penetrate the New England market and gain valuable exposure to the Boston and Hartford/Springfield markets, said MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher.
“We were looking for ways to balance our divisions, strengthen the conference, raise visibility, and raise our stature academically,” said Steinbrecher. “And among the institutions we identified was the University of Massachusetts at Amherst; we both kind of reached out to each other at the same time.”
But while there seems to be little, if any, risk for the MAC in this initiative, there appears to be plenty of it for the university. However, both Holub and McCutcheon say these are risks worth taking based on a thorough analysis of the team’s options and the economics involved with them for the short and long term.
McCutcheon told BusinessWest that UMass has been exploring a number of options, including a move to the FBS, for several years now. These alternatives have always included (in theory, at least) moving down, to a lower division, or dropping football altogether, although neither has been considered a real option for the university.
Indeed, citing everything from tradition — UMass has been playing football since 1879, has captured 22 conference championships, and won what was then known as the I-AA national championship in 1998 — to the school’s marching band, Holub said dropping football has not been seriously discussed. “You don’t have a great marching band — and we have one of the best — unless you’re going to have them march at football games.”
Meanwhile, moving backward has not been much of a consideration either, said Holub, adding that this attitude reflects most everything at the university, not simply athletics. That sentiment is summed up in the comment he offered in a press release on the day the elevation to the FBS was announced. “We seek greatness in everything we do at UMass,” he said. “We promise national excellence and prominence to the citizens of the Commonwealth, and we deliver on that promise; moving to the FBS is consistent with our upward trajectory, as Minuteman football becomes part of our move toward national prominence.”
But while there have always been merits to an upgrade to the FBS, there have likewise been high hurdles — most particularly finding a conference willing to accept the university and, perhaps even more daunting, a stadium to play in.
Both those concerns were worked out in recent months, Holub noted, adding that, overall, a move to the FBS became a more alluring possibility due to changes within the Colonial Athletic Assoc.
There, several teams, including Northeastern and Hofstra, have dropped football or moved out, and the University of Rhode Island will soon be moving down a division, said Holub, adding that other schools have been added, including William & Mary, Old Dominion, and James Madison (all in Virginia) and Georgia Southern, but they are a plane ride, not a bus trip, from Amherst.
This movement, with the higher travel expenses that come with it, bring the economics of staying put into question, said McCutcheon. Elaborating, he said that UMass football has an overall budget of $4 million, with a current $850,000 contribution (Holub used the word ‘subsidy’) from the university’s general fund, and the rest coming from what is known as ‘program-generated revenue,’ which includes everything from ticket sales to concessions to guarantees from non-conference schools such as Michigan and Kansas State, which UMass played in 2009.
Looking down the road several years, there is a strong possibility that, if the university stayed in the CAA, that $850,000 subsidy would actually go up, because there would be additional expenses and no new revenues to speak of.
“When we looked at our expenses and revenues, as we got further out with the CAA, things looked worse than they do now,” said Holub. “In those situations, you contemplate the kind of move we made.”
Expenses will certainly go up with the move to the MAC, McCutcheon noted, citing everything from the need to bus students to Foxborough (which the school did for a game there last year against New Hampshire) to the probability of enlarging the coaching staff, but there is far greater potential for new revenue.
For starters, he pointed to the Michigan game last fall. UMass was given $500,000 to essentially become a non-conference ‘W’ for the Wolverines, and then almost won the game. In the FBS, such contests with national powers will yield $1 million and perhaps more, said McCutcheon, and there is now the possibility that such games could be played at Gillette.
Other potential attractive non-conference games at Gillette could involve Boston College (a long-time rival, although not in most recent years), UConn, and perhaps one or more of the military academies, although they are attractive targets and their schedules fill up fast.
There is also the MAC’s TV contract with ESPN, he continued, adding that UMass will get a share of this, and could well wind up on of the weekday night games that have featured a steady diet of MAC teams in recent years.
Add to all this the possibility of winding up in a bowl game — the MAC holds primary bowl agreements with the Little Caesars Bowl, the GoDaddy.com Bowl, and the uDrove Humanitarian Bowl, and a host of secondary bowl accords — and the prospects for revenues that can eventually reduce and perhaps even eliminate the subsidy to football seem bright, said McCutcheon.
“There will be an increase in costs the first few years because of the transition and getting our schedules in place and things like that,” he explained. “But if you look five years out, once we make the transition, our projections have us reducing that $850,000, and if you look seven years out, we have the potential to eliminate that altogether.”
But Zimbalist belives a lot of this is fuzzy math, at best, and a very large amount of wishful thinking.
He told BusinessWest that any move from the FCS to the FBS is fraught with peril and question marks, and the volume of both escalates exponentially when the upgrade does not involve a BCS conference.
“That’s why any comparison between this move and UConn’s is fallacious,” he said, “because UConn moved up to a BCS conference and UMass did not do that. So the revenue potentials are much different.”
Overall, Zimbalist said there are, in all likelihood, simply too many increases on the expense side, and not enough potential new revenue, to make this a winning proposition.
“You’re spending more not only on the stadium or stadium upgrades, but coaches’ salaries all of a sudden go from being a few hundred thousand dollars for the head coach to maybe a few million dollars,” he said. “And you probably have twice as many assistants, and they’re making a lot more money. You have more trainers, more training facilities, and additional athletic tutoring that you have to do.
“You also increase the possibility of academic scandals,” he continued, noting that such incidents have rocked many schools reputation-wise and also hurt revenues. “At the end of the day, if you’re not upgrading to a revenue-rich conference, you get a lot of stuff on the negative side and very little on the positive side. I don’t think this a prudent move, especially in this economic environment.”
In the Red Zone?
Holub told BusinessWest that, when it comes to potential rewards from the move to the FBS, there may be some that go well beyond dollars and cents.
Indeed, he noted that success on the gridiron, basketball court, and other venues has helped many schools gain visibility, respect, and a pronounced increase in the quality and quality of applications.
“There is an important part that football can play in campus life and especially in alumni relations and donor relations,” he explained. “It can also play an important part in your state relations; if we do what we want to do and get thought of as the state’s flagship institution, like Ohio State is in that state, or Wisconsin, for example, that would be a big step forward. And if football can help us get there — along with academics and research; we won’t stop doing those things, certainly — then it will have been worthwhile.”
“Football is not going to raise our school academically at all, because that’s not what it’s designed to do,” he continued. “It was designed for us to have greater prominence and legitimacy in the state of Massachusetts.”
For this reason and many others, Holub says the rewards more than outweigh the risks from this planned football ascension. Zimbalist is among those who see it the other way.
Only time will tell will who’s right, and whether the school with triumph, not only on the field, but with the bottom line.
For now, there is only anticipation … and all those question marks.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]