AMHERST — For generations, the University of Massachusetts Marching Band has rallied students before the football team’s home games by parading through campus, horns wailing, flags spinning, drumline popping.
No longer. The tradition will end Saturday morning when the band’s 350 musicians board a convoy of motor coaches for a two-hour trek to the school’s home opener — at Gillette Stadium.
The journey to Foxborough, by far the longest commute to a home game in American college sports, will signal a turning point in the 130-year history of UMass football — a test of whether relocating the school’s home games to an NFL stadium nearly 100 miles away and investing millions of dollars to try to catapult the state’s flagship university into the gilded realm of big-time college football is visionary management or a misguided gamble.
The fact is, no one foresees a financial bonanza anytime soon. Amid the turbulent currents of major college football, UMass leaders have crafted a blueprint for the upgrade that aims to limit the risks of a potential failure but offers little promise of a significant payoff through at least 2020, according to a Globe review.
Any notion of UMass joining Boston College and the University of Connecticut in the rarefied ranks of big-time college football will have to wait. Amid the funding crunch in higher education, UMass has embraced a humbler goal: reducing its annual investment in football.
“I hope people see this as a balanced, modest approach,’’ said new UMass Amherst chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, whose predecessor, Robert Holub, spearheaded the upgrade. “We really are managing to keep our eyes on the downside, and we will under no circumstances sacrifice academics for the sake of moving up in football.’’
UMass football has long relied heavily on school funding. Nearly two-thirds of the team’s budget this year — $4.2 million of the $6.5 million total — will be derived from institutional support, including student fees and a direct subsidy.
Yet little is expected to change, at least for many years. The university’s plan for the upgrade forecasts no reduction in the football subsidy until 2016, when it would drop by only $3,000. After that, the school plans to incrementally cut its football investment each year until 2020, when it would decline by $475,000 — still a nominal amount considering the total football budget is projected to top $9.3 million by then.
Worse, critics say, the budget projections do not include $30 million the university system has borrowed to construct a football training facility and renovate the outdated McGuirk Alumni Stadium on campus for possible future use. Because the debt service on the project will total $1.8 million annually for 30 years, the program effectively could continue losing money far beyond 2020, campus critics contend.
“The difference between the actual costs of running the football program and its revenue is millions of dollars, and it’s going to get worse,’’ said Max Page, an architecture and history professor who co-chairs the Faculty Senate’s ad hoc committee on the cost of the football upgrade.
University leaders said they plan to defray the building costs through fund-raising and will adjust the football budget if necessary to ensure the subsidy does not increase.
“If things work out very differently than planned, we will take another look and see if this is the right thing to do,’’ Subbaswamy said. “But right now I’m very comfortable with where we are.’’
He said the university’s spending on athletics is less than 4 percent of the school’s total budget.
“The way we are approaching this is completely consistent with the scale of the role of athletics in our lives,’’ Subbaswamy said. “We are committed to making this work, and we think we can do it responsibly, without putting the university at risk.’’
Beyond reducing the subsidy, university leaders hope to reinvigorate alumni, enhance fund-raising, boost the university’s national prestige, and position the school to one day cash in on the cascade of big money that now flows to a small circle of elite college programs. UMass leaders yearn for the kind of national recognition the university commanded when the basketball team advanced to the Final Four under John Calipari in 1996 — an achievement later tarnished by scandal.
At worst, the football team will return to Amherst amid finger-pointing and questions about its future value on campus.
The Minutemen opened their season Aug. 30 with a 37-0 loss at UConn.
“If they do things the right way and win football games, this could have an enormous impact, as it has at the University of Michigan and Florida,’’ said Matt Carlin, who championed the upgrade as chairman of the athletic committee for the UMass board of trustees before his term ended in 2010. “But the truth is, it could go in a couple of different directions. The jury is out.’’
The Gillette deal
After years of success in the second-tier Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division 1-AA), UMass decided to join the top-flight Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division 1-A) partly because school officials believed the team’s affiliation with the Colonial Athletic Conference would grow costlier amid a membership shuffle. The decision posed two crucial challenges: playing home games on a larger stage than the 17,000-seat campus stadium and joining a suitable FBS conference.
By opting for Gillette, UMass deferred a debate over financing a new stadium — a project that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, including road improvements — and negotiated a deal that provides the school financial safeguards in case of poor attendance in Foxborough. In exchange, the school granted the Kraft family, the stadium’s owners, a greater share of the revenues if tickets sell well.
“If there turns out to be a lukewarm reception in the next few years, then the university doesn’t have much of a risk,’’ said James Karam, a UMass trustee who was chairman of the board when it endorsed the upgrade. “That gave us a great opportunity to experiment with this.’’
Under the five-year agreement, the Krafts will control ticket, concession, and merchandise sales, and equally split with UMass the first $300,000 in ticket revenues per game. The Krafts then will retain the amount above $300,000 to cover their costs of staffing and operating the stadium, an estimated $125,000 per game. Should additional ticket revenue exist, UMass and the Krafts would split it evenly.
The arrangement effectively guarantees the university will earn at least $150,000 per home game, even if attendance lags, because the school will not be liable for operating expenses. But the greater the attendance exceeds about 21,000, the more the Krafts will gain than they would have under a standard lease agreement, according to UMass officials.
“If we have great success, then obviously we traded some things off,’’ athletic director John McCutcheon said. “But we wanted the comfort level at the low end.’’
The deal requires UMass to play all its home games at Gillette in 2012 and ’13, then play at least four games a year there through 2016.
“We need a venue we can recruit the best players in America to,’’ the team’s new coach, Charley Molnar, said in a news conference. “Playing at Gillette is a perfect piece of the puzzle.’’
Finding another piece proved more problematic. Stymied in trying to align with the richest FBS conferences, UMass settled for paying $500,000 to join the Mid-American Athletic Conference, a lower-level FBS affiliate with a small television contract and little national exposure.
Unlike New England’s other FBS teams, BC and UConn, whose football teams turn a profit, UMass chose a formula that, analysts say, could be a losing proposition.
“I wish them luck, but I just don’t see how it works competitively, financially, or educationally,’’ said Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College professor who is one of the nation’s leading sports economists and has consulted for the NCAA. “I hope I’m wrong, but it seems like kind of a farce.’’
By all accounts, the key to cashing in on college football is joining one of the six major FBS conferences that automatically qualify for championship bowls and command lavish television contracts. BC did so with the Atlantic Coast Conference, UConn with the Big East.
While BC reaps a reported $17 million a year from the ACC’s television deal, for example, UMass stands to gain about $75,000 a year in MAC television revenue.
UMass officials said they lack the major funding BC and UConn received to build profitable football programs. As a result, their best hope is building the Minutemen into a regional power worthy of joining a big-money conference.
“That’s got to be the goal,’’ Karam said. “Ultimately, it’s about TV revenue.’’
Karam, an appointee of former Gov. Jane Swift, joined several of former Gov. Mitt Romney’s appointees, including Carlin, in providing impetus for the upgrade. Ultimately, the full board, including Gov. Deval Patrick’s appointees, endorsed the plan.
The board’s new chairman, Henry Thomas 3d, said the trustees vetted the proposal and deemed it a “sound and reasonable’’ effort to burnish the university’s stature.
“As a highly regarded flagship university, you want to operate at a level of excellence in everything you do,’’ said Thomas, a Patrick appointee who played football at American International College in Springfield. “Taking the program to an FBS level is a necessary innovation to bring the university the kind of exposure that creates collateral benefits as they relate to the brand and student recruitment.’’
Thomas cited BC’s blossoming from a regional school to a magnet for students nationwide after Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary touchdown pass lifted the underdog Eagles over Miami on national television in 1984.
Costs of doing business
To sell the upgrade, UMass is spending about $550,000 in advertising, aimed both at its 400,000 alumni in Massachusetts and a broader audience of males 25-54 in the Boston, Providence, Worcester, and Springfield markets. But ticket sales have been sluggish, despite the promise of free parking at Gillette.
To date, season ticket sales have topped out at about 2,200, compared with about 2,000 last year at McGuirk. And total sales for the home opener have yet to top 11,000.
Attendance last year for the Minutemen’s home opener on campus, against Rhode Island, was 11,167. School officials in recent months have projected ticket sales for Saturday’s home opener at 20,000-35,000.
Under the Gillette deal, UMass receives six luxury suites, the largest of which the school will use for corporate sponsors (the university has sold about $300,000 in football sponsorships, similar to last year’s total). Three suites will be reserved for the chancellor, the president of the university system, and the opposing team. Of the remaining two, one has sold for $25,000, and the other remains available.
Perhaps the football team’s greatest revenue source, however, is the guaranteed payments the school will receive from FBS teams trying to fill their home schedules with nonconference opponents. In all, UMass has signed guarantees for more than $7 million through 2019, including $1 million to play at Notre Dame in 2015 and $1.25 million to visit Florida in 2016.
On Aug. 30, the Minutemen received $225,000 to play at UConn. However, they will pass much of that along when they pay Indiana $200,000 to visit Gillette for the home opener.
UMass entered the season as a competitive underdog, having been picked to finish last in its MAC division. Still, the players and recruits have embraced the challenge of competing in the FBS and playing for Molnar, the former offensive coordinator at Notre Dame.
Molnar will be paid $250,000 annually, plus a $25,000 car allowance; $25,000 for speaking and media appearances; up to $125,000 in bonuses for the team’s on-field achievements; as much as $12,500 in bonuses for the team’s academic performance; and 10 percent of the revenue from guarantee games, up to $100,000 a year.
Notable among his first recruits is Sam Zeff, a 6-foot-5-inch, 275-pound lineman for Montclair (N.J.) High School. Zeff received scholarship offers from seven other schools, including UConn.
“What set UMass apart for me was that I could be part of something new and really leave my mark on the program,’’ Zeff said. “To be able to look back and see this team winning games and say I helped them get there, that was much more important to me than being in a program that already is nationally known.’’
Divisions on campus
As for UMass students, no one expects them to flock to Foxborough; they rarely turned out en masse at McGuirk. Admission to Gillette is free for students (they pay a $401 annual athletic fee), and the school is offering round-trip bus transportation, plus a cookout, for $10. Yet administrators expect only about 10 percent of the school’s 20,000 undergraduate students to attend the Indiana game.
Student government president Akshay Kapoor said students generally are excited about the upgrade. But he expressed a common concern about its economic impact.
“In a time when the campus has been overhauling our academic classrooms and buildings, and the need is still ever strong to update academic infrastructure, I think the increased cost of having such a program should not have fallen on the backs of students and the state, but rather from the capital derived from the athletic program itself,’’ Kapoor said.
Much of the faculty harbors similar reservations. Ernest May, head of the Faculty Senate, said his colleagues are “quite divided’’ over the initiative.
“I regard the move as a big challenge to the alumni,’’ May said. “If they don’t come out and make this successful, I’m not sure the program can survive.’’
McCutcheon said he expects the alumni’s relatively restrained giving to football in recent years to improve. One donor already has committed $500,000, he said, and the university hopes to raise $8 million-$10 million in the next five years to support football-related construction.
Bill DeFlavio, a UMass Hall of Famer who was an All-American lineman in 1971 and heads the Friends of UMass Football, said he is excited about the move. But the challenge of raising money and drawing crowds to Gillette would be easier, he said, if UMass were playing in a higher-profile conference.
DeFlavio said it may be difficult persuading fans to follow the Minuteman if they are losing to lesser-known MAC opponents such as Kent State and Miami of Ohio.
“Is it a risk? Sure,’’ DeFlavio said of the upgrade. “But if we can build a good winning record, people will go and they will give.’’
By moving up a division, UMass can increase the number of football scholarships it awards to 85 from 63. Under gender equity rules, the school also must fund an additional 22 athletic scholarships for women, which will benefit every women’s sport that has not already reached its scholarship limit, McCutcheon said. Football revenues will pay for the additional women’s scholarships.
As for the marching band, the upgrade means the musicians will perform at fewer road games because of the travel expenses to Gillette. It also means that everyone from the drum majors to the sousaphonists will be wondering, along with the rest of the UMass community, how the experiment will unfold.
“All of us are excited about the challenges, but we’re also anxious,’’ Anderson said. “We’re interested to see how it goes.’’