Gameday experience at Gillette Stadium is what UMass is selling http://w w w .masslive.com/umassfootball/index.ssf/2012/07/gameday_experience_at_gillette.html
August 10, 2012
J. Anthony Roberts The smell of a real college football tailgate is the first thing you notice. It’s an intoxicating mixture of sausage, beef and charcoal. The sound is next. Hoots and hollers punctuated by laughter with the occasional — or, maybe not so occasional — crunch of a can of Busch Light being stomped into pavement. You open your eyes and see a sudden monochrome — whether it’s crimson at Alabama, white at Penn State or burnt orange at Texas. The colors unite the home crowd. The taste, well that depends on where you are. At LSU, you’ll be offered gumbo, and in Wisconsin, you’re likely to find three different types of bratwurst on the menu. Families plan out menus for entire seasons, and while each week might bring a different flavor, it’s almost always delicious. UMass has had good atmospheres at Gillette Stadium in the past for the Colonial Clash, but can the school replicate that five weeks per year?
Don’t have a place to tailgate? Just walk around and look lost for about five minutes. Someone will hand you a plate, a beer and tell you to have a seat. There are no strangers among college football fans — even if it’s a fan of the opposing team. But it’s the feel that you’ll take with you. It’s an experience unlike any other in sports. The passion and the commitment of the fans is undeniable, but it’s the unmistakable joy in voices and the extra glint of excitement in eyes that leaves a tingle in the stiffest spines and a spark in the coldest hearts. The way college football can unite a state or a region is unparalleled. People forget their differences, put on their same-colored T-shirts and support their team, even if yesterday they hated the guy next to them. Once Saturday rolls around, you’re all in it together. It’s so much more than a football game. It’s more akin to a festival, a beautiful harmony between a celebration of the home team’s culture and competition on the field. That experience, the one that comes at many of the biggest FBS programs, is what the University of Massachusetts is trying to sell as part of its own move up to college football’s top level. The full-day Saturday extravaganza that hits small towns and cities from Seattle to Gainesville, Fla., and seemingly everywhere in between, is what Associate Athletic Director for External Relations Tim Kenney wants to come to Foxborough. “It's that whole event. You know what, you want to be there in the fall on Saturday because you have a great time, you'll be with friends and family, and have it at some point, where, it doesn’t even cost that much, and it's great,” Kenney said. “That's what we have to sell.”
How are the Minutemen going to do it? That remains to be seen. It’s not as simple as that infamous whisper “If you build it, they will come,” from “Field of Dreams.” That is, unless you’re Division I football newcomer Texas-San Antonio, which managed to average over 35,000 fans per game in its inaugural season in 2011. But football in Texas might just be the most indestructible business plan in the world. Football in Massachusetts is a tougher sell. College football, with the odds on the field stacked against the home team, at least for a while, is even tougher. Christopher Evans UMass, to its credit, is doing its best to “build it.” Kenney promised an environment that’s a step up from the team’s previous Colonial Clashes against New Hampshire at Gillette Stadium in 2010 and 2011. Tim Garpska, a 2007 UMass graduate, attended last year’s Colonial Clash and called the event “a worthwhile experience.” “It was good, the atmosphere is more of what I would expect from a college game,” Garpska said. The Clashes were well attended by UMass standards, with 32,848 fans in 2010 and 24,022 Tailgating has been present at McGuirk Stadium (seen here in Sept., 2007), but UMass hopes it will take a step up at Gillette Stadium.
in 2011 — though Garpska says more than half the fans last season were from UNH. For a school that once banned tailgating on its campus, a new focus on gameday atmosphere will likely be a welcome change for fans. Kenney spoke of plans for live music in the plaza at Patriot Place, along with DJ’s and live bands for the students. Free parking, a rarity in college football (many schools require donations in excess of $1,000 for season-long parking spots close to the stadium), won’t hurt people’s appetites for tailgating either. Coach Charley Molnar understands what the experience is like, having coached at Notre Dame for two seasons. “It’s all things that surrounded the game,” Molnar said. “It’s the tailgating, the playing catch in the parking lot — all that should be happening in Foxborough.” “I want UMass football games to be a red-letter day, to be non-negotiable dates locked into people’s schedules the moment our schedule comes out,” he continued. “There’s no reason we can’t have a day like they have in South Bend, like they have in Ann Arbor or Tallahassee.” UMass administrators aren’t under any delusions that they are Notre Dame, Michigan or Florida State (where Kenney once worked). The product on the field is going to take time, and while tailgating is fun, wins and losses on the field are obviously a huge aspect of the Saturday atmosphere. At Western Kentucky, the last school to make the FCS to FBS transition, the move up brought a definitive change in feel, according to the school’s ticket manager, Matt Morrison. “The atmosphere was great, but we struggled on the field,” Morrison said. “We had a good year last year, and it felt like we were finally able to turn over that three to four year transition period. The early struggles on the field were very real for the Hilltoppers, who went from Sept. 20, 2007 to Oct. 23, 2010
without a win over an FBS team, but those who stayed the course saw WKU go 7-5 and finish second in the Sun Belt last year. “That momentum has carried over into excitement for this season,” Morrison said. Momentum is something that UMass doesn’t have yet. If wins on the field are what it takes, it might be a while. Perhaps the freshness of the idea of top-level football, along with what UMass provides to add to the atmosphere will be enough. Ultimately, though, there’s only so much you can build. The true attraction to a college football Saturday is the people — whether it’s sharing a weekend day with family, cooking the perfect steak for your best friend, or sharing a beverage with a new friend you just met. Ultimately, it’s a sense of community, not the product on the field that packs parking lots on Saturdays. Ultimately, to build this, you need them to come. This article is the second in a series that will examine UMass’ move to FBS and Gillette Stadium. For the first article on ticket sales, click here