As the saying goes; if you build it, they will come. Well, I damn sure hope so.
I grew up a big sports fan. Did I need to mention that? In Boston, we seemingly had it all, at least from the perspective of a 10 year old. We didn’t have perennial winners, but that is secondary in holding the interest of a child. I just liked to watch whatever was on the local television stations. That of course meant; Celtics, Patriots, Red Sox and Bruins.
Tom Brady wasn’t in the state yet, nor was Kevin Garnett or even Manny Ramirez. And, Larry Bird and Robert Parrish weren’t walking through our door. The titles and “decade of dominance” would come later.
In addition to our local teams, there were also college games on the local television stations. Let me take you back to the mid-90s, say, circa ’95. Remember, I am 10 years old and this is well before I understand the business behind sports. At the time, I enjoyed watching Florida State football and Massachusetts basketball. Random? Maybe just a bit, but these were two top programs in their respective sports. More importantly each program frequently had games on TV.
Television is a powerful medium. Even with the internet and our Blackberry devices, TV still commands attention. This carries over to sports. That is evident when you see just how powerful ESPN is. I wrote previously;
It seems that using collegiate athletics may help emphasize [the power of television] even more. ESPN literally has the power to make collegiate conferences change the scheduling of their games to benefit ESPN’s bottom line.
That’s a powerful position to maintain for ESPN.
As far as the on-field product goes, think about just how much it actually matters which conferences ESPN chooses to sign contracts with. Recruits want to be seen on TV. Needless to say, the Atlantic Coast Conference gets a bit more air time than the Sun Belt Conference. For this reason, Florida International is going to have an even harder time recruiting against, say, Florida State.
I have a local example of a university being proactive in this regard. Quinnipiac University made an arrangement with NESN (home of the Red Sox and Bruins) to broadcast a limited number of their games. Athletic Director Jack MacDonald’s forward thinking media strategy got their men’s basketball, women’s basketball, and men’s hockey teams TV time which they never would have received without this deal.
No networks were clamoring for Quinnipiac athletics. Quinnipiac literally paid the network a fee to air the games. The school even has to pay for the production costs and sells the advertising itself. MacDonald knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish from this campaign. He told the Boston Globe:
”Remember the Flutie factor?” McDonald asked, referring to the spike in BC applications after Doug Flutie’s career. ”We’ve got the NESN factor at Quinnipiac. It’s not anywhere near that, but there is a direct correlation.”
Having a relationship with the community matters. Athletics is a fabulous way to foster that relationship. Television is a great way to make people in the area aware, first of your universities existence, and then second, that you are indeed relevant.
It’s something that some university chancellors and athletic directors understand more than others.
Big-time Collegiate Athletics
The University of Massachusetts is a perfect example of an institution which is a tweener when it comes to academics as well as athletics. UMass is more than proficient at both, but might be truly great in neither. The university is a top tier academic institution, but is not Harvard, MIT or Yale. The university has a respectable athletic reputation, but it is not a Texas, Florida or USC.
Notice that Texas, Florida and USC are all good academic institutions as well as athletic powerhouses. Athletics have long been a major priority for these schools. I ask this; which schools keep a stronger connection with their alumni — a school such as Quinnipiac? Or a school such as Texas?
It’s not even close.
Universities with big-time athletics forge a bond that goes far beyond the 4 years (or 5 or 6 years for some) that an undergrad spends on campus. Still, many people do not see the value-add of having strong athletic traditions.
Professor’s often vote against allocating any money towards athletics. I believe this to be because professor’s have a one track mind. No matter how brilliant that mind may be in regards to that one particular track, professor’s often have a difficult time grasping “the big picture”. I find this athletics argument to be a perfect example.
The academic minded professors see a direct correlation between educational funding and academic results. However, these professors fail to see the demonstrative value added by athletic relevance. It’s truly the ultimate PR tool.
UMass Minutemen move to FBS Conference
Last Wednesday, the University of Massachusetts announced that it’s football program would be moving from the FCS to the FBS. UMass will play its final Colonial Athletic Association schedule in 2011, but won’t be eligible for postseason play in the Championship Subdivision. In 2012, the school will play a Mid-American Conference schedule, but won’t be eligible for FBS postseason or MAC Championship. UMass will be a full member of the MAC in 2013 and will thus be eligible to compete in bowl games if the team qualifies.
The miraculous thing, that I couldn’t get over, was that the schools governing body voted unanimously for the school to move the program from the Football Championship subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision.
I guess some of the same powerful ideas that I have laid out here were too much for the board to dispute. There is often a clear correlation between on-field, athletic success and enhanced applicant numbers and quality. I wrote about this, using George Mason as an example, about one year ago.
There are also very public shortcomings, which I acknowledged, that can be brought on by major college athletics. Players misbehaving, coaches misbehaving, these are all part of the territory. However, if done correctly, the utilization of a solid football program can greatly benefit a university as a whole.
Although relatively new to the university, UMass Chancellor Robert Holub seems to have a grasp on this concept. Holub said that playing FBS football was part of a greater goal to raise the profile of the university.
“Playing at the top level of college football is consistent with our role as the flagship university of the commonwealth. UMass-Amherst is the premier public research university in the state and in the region. It’s only fitting we should play in the premiere division of college football. This move advances our aspiration to assume our rightful place in the upper echelon of national public research universities. Most such institutions compete at the FBS level.”
The move from the FCS to FBS is not simply a move for athletics, it is a move for the university as a whole.
AmherstFoxboro, And Robert Kraft
So, how’d this all go down?
The agreement between the University of Massachusetts and the Mid-American Conference also involves a third party. Interestingly, this third party might be the most important person in the deal. It’s Robert Kraft.
Kraft has agreed to let UMass use his Gillette Stadium for free. The money that Kraft will get will be from a sharing of the actual event revenue. If it wasn’t for Kraft’s generosity, UMass would have been unable to make this move.
You might remember when Kraft was going to bring the Patriots to Hartford. Part of his pitch to the state was that this would provide Uconn with a home suitable for a program upgrade to Division IA (now the FBS). It didn’t end up going down that way, but this showed Kraft’s willingness to share his stadium with a collegiate partner.
It’s been years in the making, but now a deal that brings Kraft a collegiate team is officially in place.
RDM attended the University of Massachusetts from 2004 to 2008. Don’t believe for a second that he has stopped thinking about Massachusetts football since last Wednesday’s announcement.