Fill the seats: UMass expands football promotion, ticket sales effort
The University of Massachusetts is stepping up its efforts to promote the football and ticket sales for the 2013 season. Purchase photo reprints »
The University of Massachusetts is stepping up efforts to promote the football team and ticket sales. Purchase photo reprints »
Charley Molnar Purchase photo reprints »
When renovations are completed, McGuirk Stadium will host some University of Massachusetts football games. Purchase photo reprints »
AMHERST — The lack of wins in 2012 wasn’t a surprise for the University of Massachusetts football team. The Minutemen were in their first year playing in the Bowl Subdivision after decades in the lesser Championship Subdivision. With a new coach, a new quarterback and a much tougher slate in front of them, most preseason predictions had the Minutemen finishing with no more than one win.
But even with low on-field expectations, the administrations of the athletic department and the university had been outwardly optimistic that the school’s considerable alumni base in eastern Massachusetts would show up for home games, which had been moved to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.
They believed the chance to be part of a new venture from the outset, as well as being able to get into Gillette at prices far below what it costs to see the New England Patriots, would bring in more than the 10,901 fans UMass averaged over five home games. Even with the upper deck sections closed off, crowds that small made the 68,756-seat stadium look empty.
With Season 2 of the FBS era less than two months away, UMass has been trying enhanced and different approaches to promotion in hopes of increasing not only attendance, but interest and awareness of the program. In addition to continued efforts by the athletic department, the overall campus administration is taking a larger role.
“We identified one of the areas that could be improved was doing a more campuswide approach to promoting football. If university relations was more involved in it, we could tap into campuswide resources that athletics could not,” said John Kennedy, the vice chancellor for university relations who is a leader of an informal group of 10 athletics and campus administrators that meets weekly. “We have access to the broader campuswide marketing apparatus. We’re in regular contact with student affairs and alumni relations. We thought we should broaden the effort beyond the traditional athletic marketing approach. It’s more of a comprehensive universitywide approach to promoting the football program.”
Prior to the 2012 season, UMass advertised on major eastern Massachusetts highway billboards, the sides of buses and in sports radio, television and newspapers. While some of that traditional advertising will still be part of year two, there’s an increased focus on personal communication. In addition to social media, the UMass Ambassadors have been created.
The group tasks passionate fans with educating their friends, neighbors, co-workers and anyone else who might potentially be interested in UMass football, on what’s going on and then convincing them to attend games. Potential ambassadors were invited to events at Fenway Park and Amherst Brewing Company in June and then trained at Gillette Stadium.
“The ambassador program has been really positive up to this point,” UMass coach Charley Molnar said. “We’re finding people that bleed maroon, that love not only UMass athletics, but UMass football in particular and want to be engaged and make a difference.
“Each of those people have friends, co-workers, family and neighbors who are looking for ways to spend their entertainment dollar in new and different ways,” Molnar continued. “Some of those people are UMass alums. Some are football fans. Some are just looking for something to do with their kids in a safe, cost-effective environment. The UMass Ambassadors are going to work to connect those people to UMass football. Maybe there wasn’t enough one-on-one engagement between UMass and the potential ticket buyers. That’s what we’re trying to do to get out and get in front of groups large and small, talking about UMass football.”
McCutcheon said that many casual and potential fans still don’t know that UMass moved into college football’s highest subdivision.
“With football, we have to continuously raise the awareness of what we’re doing. Because we’re so immersed in it, sometimes we assume there’s greater awareness out there than perhaps there is,” he said. “I think we raised awareness with a lot of people last year, but still there’s a lot of people that aren’t fully understanding what you’re telling them when you say you’re going to FBS level football.
“Maybe that’s because we have a pretty significant population in eastern Mass. that are so attuned to professional sports,” McCutcheon continued. “We have a great facility and an inexpensive fun day in that great facility. We want to make them aware and intrigued enough that they come and sample the product. Hopefully we’ll be able to have an increasingly more competitive product.”
Kennedy hopes the new promotions and improved awareness create significant increases in attendance this season. Eventually the program will need to average 15,000 fans per game or face some NCAA penalties. Kennedy hoped that number is in reach for the 2013 season.
“I’d like to see a substantial improvement in attendance over last year, which is ultimately what we’re trying to do. NCAA attendance requires an average of 15,000 a game. That would be the minimum of what we’d be hoping for. We had 10,901 on average last year. That’s about a 50 percent increase if we can pull this off,” said Kennedy, who didn’t doubt the long-term success of the upgrade.
“I think there’s no question that it’s going to be successful ... that it is successful,” he said. “These transitional years are always a building process. Year to year if we can continue to build on the previous year’s success, it’s going to continue to raise the profile of the university.”
New approach for students
The administration had hoped that students would be a big part of the atmosphere. They were offered free tickets, $10 bus rides from campus to Foxborough and other incentives to make the trip to Gillette Stadium. The first game drew 35 buses worth of students, but interest waned after that.
McCutcheon said a survey of students after the 2012 season revealed that the entire game experience took up more of their Saturday than many of them wanted to give up. Last year the package included a bus ride, a pregame tailgate barbecue, the game and postgame concert by the marching band.
This year buses will leave Amherst later. The barbecue has also been eliminated and instead students will receive concession vouchers. If the weather or the game turns ugly students can leave early.
“Last year we wouldn’t have the buses leave until after the game and the band concert was over,” McCutcheon said. “We’re going to let the buses go back as they fill up. If they’ve had their fill, depending on how the game is going in the second half, some of the kids want to head back to campus early to cut down their time away from campus. We’ll give them the opportunity to do that.”
The pregame experience will change for many nonstudents too. Last year, UMass hosted its pregame reception for fans and boosters in the CBS Scene sports bar in Patriot Place. This year, the reception will be moved to a large outdoor tent similar to the one that was used at McGuirk Stadium to create a more traditional tailgating atmosphere.
Still, the challenges are similar to those faced a year ago. None of the preseason magazines have the Minutemen predicted to come close to a winning record so the administrations are charged with trying to arouse interest in a team that’s expected to struggle.
Despite last year’s 1-11 record, McCutcheon said the department received overwhelmingly positive reviews from people that attended games.
“Winning helps everything obviously. But the comments we got from the folks that went to the games was that they enjoyed themselves. The parking was great because there was no cost. It was easy to tailgate,” he said. “The ones who partook of the club level seating really thought it was fantastic. We were able to provide that to them at a cost far below anything they would have been able to get at a Patriots game. Now it’s a matter of expanding that circle and getting those folks to come back and improving on some of the things that we did.”
Two home stadiums
The renovations to McGuirk Stadium’s facilities building and press box are scheduled to be completed in time for the start of the 2014 season. Beginning that year, the Minutemen will play three games in Foxborough and three games in Amherst, and will likely be playing a split home schedule in every season that it has six home games.
A split only works with six games because NCAA rules stipulate that a home stadium is any place where a team plays at least 50 percent of its home games. With five home games, like UMass played in 2012, there would be four games in one stadium and one, which would be considered a neutral site game, in the other. Only one neutral site game is allowed.
Splitting the slate can create a ticket sales question still to be answered: Will fans drive across the state for three games or will the school have a separate fan base for each stadium?
UMass is treating the split like an opportunity.
“We’re Massachusetts’ football team,” said Molnar, repeating a line that’s been a staple of his speeches to UMass fans. “In the near future, we’ll be playing a split schedule between eastern Mass. and western Mass. I think both constituencies will feel like they have a lot of UMass football. If they want more they’ll have to travel from one side of the state to the other. They’ll have to drive a little bit. I don’t think what we’re asking our fans to do is unique in college football.
“If there’s only three games a year, maybe the demand will be much higher,” Molnar said. “Maybe we’ll have more of a push for tickets. Fan will be able to buy a three-game package in the eastern part and a three-game package in the western part. Maybe we’ll have two distinct fan bases. I’d really like to see by year five that maybe it’s a melded group where everybody in the state wants to watch UMass football and they’ll travel to Amherst or Foxborough.”