Amherst businesses feel impact of UMass football move

Last modified: Monday, January 28, 2013

When officials decided last year to move all University of Massachusetts football games from the longtime home on campus to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, area restaurants, bars and hotels braced themselves for the blow.

And it came. During the season that ended last Friday, Amherst businesses noted quiet Saturdays on weekends that once buzzed with activity when 10,000 or more spectators descended on Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium.

“We’ve suffered,” said Tony Maroulis, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce.

At Amherst Brewing Co. on University Drive, one of the closest restaurants to the stadium, home games on five Saturdays a year meant crowds seeking meals and drinks before and after games.

Now there are Saturdays where nothing’s going on, said Clayton Leonard, manager at Amherst Brewing.

J. Curtis Shumway, president of the Hampshire Hospitality Group, has seen a perceptible decline in bookings at its hotels in Amherst and Hadley.

“It’s clear we are not getting the extra business attributable to the home football games,” Shumway said.

Over the past several years, crowds at games ranged from a low of 9,353 in 2005 to a high of 13,005 in 2010, according to statistics provided by the university. The Minutemen’s last game at Gillette Stadium last Friday drew 6,385. The average attendance for the five home games there was 10,901.

“This move has not fired up the students, it has not fired up the faculty and obviously it has not fired up the business owners,” said Max Page, a UMass professor who is co-chairman of an ad-hoc committee on the Football Bowl Subdivision. “There are not many fans of this move except in the administration.”

Homecoming weakened

The hole left by the lack of UMass football in town was particularly evident Homecoming weekend, traditionally a time when many alumni return. This year Homecoming, which stretched over two weekends in late October, was deemed a lost event by businesses, Maroulis said.

“In general, we have heard that, compared to the same weekend last year, receipts were way down,” he said.

Downtown bars, which put in an annual request to open early on Homecoming in order to serve customers prior to kickoff, didn’t need to do that this fall.

Leonard said the Homecoming football game and on-campus promotions always meant busy roads with people pouring into town. This year, though, he said the university divided the event up over two weekends, with a portion of it taking place in Foxborough.

“Splitting it up actually hurt it,” Leonard said. “Homecoming weekend wasn’t like years past.”

Nick Seamon, owner of Black Sheep Deli, said he didn’t depend on Homecoming, but always got orders from returning alumni. Those disappeared this year.

Maroulis said he is not surprised that many alumni stayed away without a game to draw them back to campus. “As an alum, you always want a reason to go back home,” he said.

J.C. Schnabl, the assistant vice chancellor for alumni relations and executive director of the UMass Amherst Alumni Association, said in an email that his office was aware that not having a football game in Amherst could reduce turnout for all events associated with Homecoming.

“We were also cognizant that lower attendance may have a negative impact on our local community and the businesses and residents of western Massachusetts who have steadfastly supported us through the decades,” Schnabl said. This was addressed in myriad ways, he said, including aiming activities for alumni of all ages, doing more promotional work through social media and emphasizing the hockey game against Boston University as a centerpiece. About 7,000 fans turned out for that game at the Mullins Center, he said.

Eye on the future

There are lingering concerns about the long term and whether football ever will return to Amherst. The move to Gillette was made to accommodate the move UMass made from the Football Championship Subdivision to the more prestigious Football Bowl Subdivision. At 68,000 capacity, Gillette is four times the size of the 17,000-seat McGuirk.

Along with the move, it was announced that $30 million would be spent fixing up the stadium in Amherst, which is used for practice. Officials have said that once the work is done, one UMass football game per year will be played in Amherst, either on Homecoming weekend or on a weeknight, and be nationally televised. That would occur through the 2016 season, when the five-year contract at Gillette is completed.

More than a year after the announcement, though, no work has been done at McGuirk. That is expected to change in the spring. UMass spokesman Daniel Fitzgibbons said construction of a new 55,000-square-foot fieldhouse, with new lockers, weight training room and meeting space, and a modern 5,800-square-foot press box at the stadium should begin in March and be completed in time for the 2014 football season.

Officials expected the football program would lose money with the change this year and it did — about $700,000, according to information provided by Athletic Director John McCutcheon.

UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said this deficit should be made up next season by “major guarantee” games, as well as more aggressive marketing of the program and an improvement in the team, which won just one game this season. Many of the losses were blowouts.

Page said his committee will issue a full report on the costs Dec. 11.

“One of the points that has come up is how frustrated people have been in the move to Gillette, which was what made this ill-fated enterprise possible,” Page said.

There is no proof that it has attracted new alumni to become boosters for the university, Page said.

Akshay Kapoor, president of the Student Government Association, said evaluating the move based solely on finances is a mistake. Kapoor said upgrading the football team has provided a source of pride for both current students and the Boston-area alumni and that is an important benefit.

“I know many of the Valley residents are saddened by the temporary departure of the UMass football program, as they and their families routinely came down to McGuirk to watch the Minutemen play,” Kapoor said. “But I think playing at Gillette Stadium brings an added value to our team and really showcases our upward move to FBS.”

Schnabl also argues that football in Foxborough can achieve a closer connection for alumni to the flagship campus.

The university acknowledges its importance in producing spin-off business to the community, Blaguszewski said, bringing many events and programming to Amherst.

“We need to put (football) in the context of the university’s commitment to the community as a whole,” Blaguszewski said.

Shumway of the Hampshire Hospitality Group said from his standpoint, the success of the football move can’t be measured in just one year.

“We are very hopeful that if and when the team returns to playing more in Amherst we will have an improvement in our businesses,” he said.

Those at Amherst Brewing say they agree. And in the meantime, they and other business owners are banking on the university’s hockey and basketball teams being competitive and drawing more fans this season. Paul Korpita, who owns Amherst Brewing, said that will help.

“All bring in a crowd, depending on how good the teams are,” he said.


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