Good news for UMass and Foxboro
The reaction to the news that the University of Massachusetts Minutemen will be playing their home games at Foxboro's Gillette Stadium starting in 2012 has elicited a variety of responses since it was announced earlier this week.
Among the most prominent has been: "Wait, UMass plays football?"
And that, of course, is part of the problem.
When the founders of what was then the Massachusetts Agricultural College decided in 1863 to locate its campus in Amherst, far from the baleful influences of wicked cities like Boston, they probably did not realize that they were also moving it out of a major media market.
Anyone from these parts who has made the 190-mile round trip drive to the flagship campus of the state university system would agree that it's no casual journey. It's more of an expedition.
So it may not be surprising that the football program at what one Boston sportswriter refers to as "dear old State" doesn't get the attention it deserves, despite a winning record (6-5) last year.
Between the Boston pro teams and the Hub's varsity athletics scene, UMass hardly rates a mention in the Boston media.
Now the Minutemen are moving up to the Football Bowl Subdivision level of NCAA Division I, the top level of collegiate football, by joining the Mid-America Conference. NCAA guidelines stipulate that a FBS program must average 15,000 fans per home game over its first two years, or face review. UMass averaged only 13,004 last year at McGuirk Alumni Stadium, its on-campus site since 1965. By playing its home games at Gillette, UMass looks to tap into the local fan base of thousands of alumni in a venue that can accommodate them in style.
It could also mean playing more attractive opponents, including a possible return engagement with the Michigan Wolverines, and that could draw attention, fans and - not least - revenue to the UMass program.
Overshadowed by professional teams, big-time college football has struggled to gain a foothold in the area for years. While "The Game" between Harvard and Yale is as firm a New England tradition as ice storms and Ipswich clams, the largest universities in the area (Northeastern and BU) have dropped their troubled programs over the years. Even Boston College, which already plays at a very high level, has never generated the kind of fan support college programs get in other parts of the country.
But having a team with a strong local connection playing in one of the top stadiums in the country could change that.
For the area, well-attended football games next fall could mean significant revenue, and, yes, more traffic on area roads. But after years of handling pro football crowds, we're confident that local authorities are more than prepared to deal with college game day fans.
If there was ever a win-win, we think that this is it.