UMass to join MAC for football in 2012

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The University of Massachusetts announced Wednesday afternoon it has accepted an invitation into the Mid-American Conference for football.

It will begin playing home games beginning in the fall of 2012 at Gillette Stadium, the home of the New England Patriots.

UMass, which currently plays in the Division I FCS subdivision, will play a full FBS and MAC schedule starting in 2012. It will be eligible for bowl games, as well as the conference championship, starting in 2013. This fall, the Minutemen will continue to play in the Colonial Athletic Association, but will not be eligible for postseason play. The university will remain in the Atlantic 10 Conference for all other sports.

UMass athletic director John McCutcheon addressed the media for 16 minutes following speeches from chancellor Robert Holub, Patriots owner Robert Kraft, MAC commissioner Dr. Jon Steinbrecher, trustee James Karam and state secretary of education and trustee Paul Reville.

The move will provide new sources of revenue for Massachusetts since the MAC has a television deal and several bowl agreements. But new costs will include the addition of 22 football scholarships to a total of 85. The current budget of $4.4 million is scheduled to increase to $6.9 million by 2013.

Holub said in a few years "we will be using less funds from our budget to support athletics than we do now."

Kraft said if it is "a better deal for UMass, then we're happy."

"We've come up with a way of sharing [the stadium] so that there's very little downside risk," Kraft said.

"That was the prudent thing, and the correct thing. And since we believe that this is going to be very successful, I think it's a chance for everyone to make out well."

Kraft entertained the crowd with a little humor, kidding "before I met my sweetheart, I used to date a girl on the UMass campus ... I probably shouldn't have mentioned that, I'll get in trouble for that one," before once again reiterating the Kraft Group's goal at elevating the sport of football at all levels.

"We have not seen it happen as rapidly in the college area," Kraft said. "We're really happy that in a small way, we can help to have UMass be the third team to be in the FBS in the New England region. It's a school that has a tremendous tradition, and its academic strengths are really excellent.

"We believe this will help attract even more students, and financially become something that will be very strong and be a great cash flow down the road."

Steinbrecher echoed the financial sentiments and said the "values of UMass match those of the conference's other member institutions." He also praised the program's "strong tradition," pointing to the school's five league championships in the last 13 seasons, including the 1998 Division I-AA national championship.

Several concerns were raised, most significantly the obstacles presented by geography. The addition of UMass now gives the MAC a foothold in 10 of the top 50 television markets in the country. But from the university's standpoint, questions were raised regarding the non-traditional rivals the Minutemen will face in the future.

Aside from the UMass campus being roughly 95 miles from Foxborough -- making it a tough commute for students and fans from the western part of the state -- the closest opponents will be the Philadelphia-based Temple University and the University of Buffalo. Those schools are not considered a natural rival like New Hampshire, which played UMass before nearly 33,000 fans at Gillette last fall. NCAA rules require an average stadium attendance of 15,000. Last season, the Minutemen averaged less than 14,000 at their on-campus stadium.

Confident the Minutmen will maintain that attendance average, McCutcheon conceded upgrades will need to be done to facilities should they host FBS-caliber games.

"We see this venue as an outstanding opportunity for us for a very, very long time," McCutcheon said. "By nature of coming here, we probably have, if not the best collegiate venue in the country, then pretty close. We do want to do some improvements on our stadium on campus ... But the primary home for UMass football for the forseeable future, I think, is going to be here at Gillette Stadium."

Moving to the FBS subdivision allows UMass to expand to 85 scholarships, up from the limit of 63 at the FCS level. McCutcheon said there hasn't been a decision as to how to divvy up the extra scholarships that now must be created for women's athletics to stay in compliance with Title IX.

Steinbrecher said the league has not decided whether the Minutemen will enter as a member of the East or West division.

Brendan Hall covers high school sports for ESPNBoston.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.