Two years ago, Boston College opened their 2014 season with a game against the University of Massachusetts. Although the game was played in neither Amherst nor Chestnut Hill, it was a Minutemen home game, hosted at their “second home” at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro.
Over 30,000 fans filed through the turnstiles at Gillette Stadium, with UMass selling more tickets than any other game for their FBS era. Unfortunately for the Minutemen fan base in attendance, however, the majority of the fans in attendance were Boston College fans. The open end zone at Gillette was filled with Superfan shirts, and a decided home game feel for the Eagles ended with a 30-7 BC victory.
What made the UMass-BC game at Gillette so unique was how the Minutemen marketed the game. They blitzed the Commonwealth with advertisements on buses, taxis, billboards, trash cans, and anything else they could sponsor in an effort to sell tickets. Calling it the “Battle of the Bay State,” UMass gave the game a neutral site feel, either by design or unintentionally.
With the 2016 summer underway, UMass is once again marketing its home game against BC in the same fashion. Back in May, they released ticket prices for the 12 PM start at Gillette Stadium with the date of when they go on sale. Advertisements for the game can be spotted throughout the Commonwealth, as well, with at least one dotting the drive this summer down Route 3 for tourists heading to Cape Cod.
UMass very obviously needs to sell this game in particular. As an independent, they no longer have profit sharing from a conference, meaning they have to capitalize on as many opportunities as possible. The BC game is their first home game of the year, the first of three scheduled at the home of the New England Patriots, and one of six they’ll host throughout the year.
Making this year different, however, is the school’s approach to the marketing scheme. Two years ago, it felt like a neutral site type game. This year, UMass’s marketing scheme is to highlight more of the Minutemen feel, cloaking everything in their maroon and white while prominently featuring their “Unite the MASSes” hashtag and campaign.
I’ve often criticized the UMass move to the FBS, but back in December, I took a decidedly different turn when I said there was BC interest in UMass’ FBS reboot. This is exactly what I was getting at.
I get the feeling that BC fans will turn out for this game simply because it’s close by. Tickets are comparable to a game at Alumni Stadium - unless you’re looking to sit in club seating - and the appeal of tailgating and beer should be more than enough to get fans to turn out. There’s an appeal to do it again, to head to Foxboro in mass and boo the home team out of their own stadium.
That desire should cement a foundation of a good rivalry. In 2018, UMass pays the Eagles a return trip to the Alumni Stadium to kick off the year. If the Minutemen can use a game like this to build their fan base with a bi-annual or even annual rivalry, it can energize college football in general in Massachusetts.
Let me explain a little bit further because I realize what I’m saying. In an era where attendance is declining, attendance at Alumni Stadium is well below the national average of about 44,000 per game. Matchups against non-power teams are becoming passe, especially when the team is a MAC special like Buffalo. There’s no appeal or draw there.
But a game against UMass taps into the sectarianism New England is notorious for. It creates an east-vs-west feel between Boston and Area Code 413, a place I often joke could be given to New York without us Bostonians even noticing. It’s the public school against the private, exclusive, Jesuit university. It’s a culture clash that could guarantee the right amount of revenue, which at the end of the day is what’s most important.
This game offers something to everyone. McGuirk Stadium doesn’t have enough seating to accommodate, so any UMass home game essentially has to be at Gillette. That allows BC to schedule an unofficial home game when it’s on the road with a guaranteed paycheck.
It avoids the potential clean up in Aisle Four caused by New Mexico State last year. UMass wouldn’t abandon a game against BC when it’s guaranteeing them bigger and better attendance than the rest of their schedule. It’s a built-in rivalry game for them, one they can market every time it comes around as the “Battle of the Bay State.”
Over time, maybe that “Battle” develops into a Commander-in-Chief’s type trophy with UConn. Or BC alternates games with the Huskies in off-years with the Minutemen. Fenway Park seemed interested in getting something together for BC; it’s unlikely BC moves a lucrative game off-campus (save for the Ireland opportunity this year). I highly doubt Fenway would go for a game against an unknown if they can market something locally. But the properly-marketed local game is capable of drawing; UMass-UNH drew 32,000 people to Gillette for a one-off contest, and that’s more people than even UMass-BC.
Either way, being able to tap into regional rivalries arguably makes more money that wasn’t there before when you’re scheduling Western Michigan. After all, people at BC actually harbor negative feelings to UMass and UConn, which is more than what they can say for Buffalo (and, believe me, they voiced how much they didn’t care about Buffalo when this year’s schedule was released).
I deemed this a “low-risk” investment for BC. If it fails, it’s just another game against a G5 opponent - the type of game BC’s been scheduling year-in and year-out. It’s more damaging to UMass in that regard. BC can go back to scheduling other teams.
If this succeeds, however, it stands to benefit everyone. It’s a long-term approach, one the Minutemen are clearly committed to for another season.