When the University of Massachusetts decided to move their football program up from the NCAA’s Division I FCS division to the FBS, the traditional home of the Minutemen, Warren McGuirk Alumni Stadium, wasn’t up to the task. UMass was to join the Mid-American Conference, and the home field in Amherst couldn’t meet capacity or broadcasting requirements before the move.
Instead, UMass signed a contract with the Kraft Group to play all of their home games in the 2012 and 2013 seasons at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, the home of the New England Patriots and New England Revolution. The move brought Minutemen college football to the biggest stage in the state – indeed in all of New England – and provided players and fans alike with a unique opportunity to experience UMass’s historic first seasons in FBS at a facility that also housed the very best among the professional ranks.
Unfortunately, the premise that playing UMass games at Gillette would add to the experience fails in practice. While the stadium still speaks for itself as a first-class facility, its cavernous size and prohibitive distance from both Boston and the University’s Amherst campus conspire to create a subdued and lackluster gameday experience for Minutemen fans. As the novelty of playing in Foxborough wears off, UMass fans will probably find themselves looking forward to the re-opening of McGuirk.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Gillette Stadium actually has a fairly robust offering of concession fare, and roughly half of the stands around the stadium are actually open for UMass football games. In addition to the standard lineup of hot dogs, burgers, fries and other ballpark staples, the various Gillette stands also offer sausages and other slightly finer foods, including healthy options. Furthermore, the stadium serves alcohol, which is an unusual perk for a college game and is worth a star by itself, with a pretty varied selection of domestics, imports, and crafts.
Unfortunately, that's where all the goodness ends. The concessions are priced through the roof. Beer is about a dollar or two pricier in the stadium than at any of the various drinking establishments in Patriot Place, and the food prices almost don't merit mentioning. UMass isn't the most prestigious football program in the country (or even the region), and the idea of selling concessions at Patriots prices to a crowd that usually fails to hit the one-third mark in stadium capacity is borderline insulting. You'd be best advised to skip concessions entirely, unless you're afflicted with a wasting sickness or you have a lot of disposable income.
Luckily, you can always fill up before or after the game at any of the great establishments in Patriot Place.
The Gillette Stadium staff designates a section of the parking lot around Gillette Stadium as a tailgating section for UMass games, which creates a pleasant atmosphere in the parking lot that wouldn't look out of place at any major college football game. It doesn't get quite as rowdy as some tailgates that happen nearer to campuses, but it's still fun. Inside the stadium, though, the effect of playing in an oversized venue hours away from the school campus is fully felt.
The student section is almost non-existent. As the season wore on, fewer and fewer of the UMass undergrads found it justifiable to make the two-hour trek from Amherst. Without a vibrant student section, the atmosphere at any college event tends to take a nosedive, and these games were no exception. In addition, the dwindling crowds that did make the trip were swallowed up in the cavernous expanse of 68,000-seat Gillette, and without a full crowd, the acoustics in the stadium tend to carry any crowd noise right out before it can get real loud.
The band comes to the games, which adds some noise and a distinctly collegiate flavor to the games that would otherwise be missing. Unfortunately, it isn't enough to make the environment exciting or special.
Several years ago, Robert Kraft built Patriot Place around Gillette Stadium, and in doing so, he created one of the most fun and vibrant neighborhoods in Foxborough and, indeed, anywhere else. It's a one-stop daytime or evening destination, with a broad assortment of dining, drinking, shopping, and entertainment options. Basically, it's an enormous, open-air mall with cooler stuff.
Apart from the stadium, the showpiece entertainment destination is the Cinema De Lux, where you can catch a movie in luxurious seats and have staff wait on you during the film. It has seated luxury dining areas, a food court, and internal restaurants (Studio 3 and Chatters), which you won't find in too many other places. Other entertainment venues include 5Wits adventure locations 20,000 Leagues and Espionage, a nature trail and cranberry bog, Kidville, and even a slew of open-air concerts on the plaza overlooking the stadium.
The rest of Patriot Place is filled with drinking and eating establishments, as well as shopping destinations that spread across all products, from a Bass Pro Shop to a Victoria's Secret, or Bed, Bath & Beyond to a Gamestop. The massive shopping and entertainment center offers great dining options like CBS Scene, Davio's, and Five Guys, as well as bars like Bar Louie and Toby Keith's. The previous list is just an example; there are a good handful of other restaurants and bars ranging in quality from basic chain restaurants to near-fine dining.
Outside of this bustling metropolis, Route 1 in Foxborough isn't much to write home about. That said, quick turns down side streets not even five minutes from the stadium can put you into nice, well-kept Massachusetts suburban neighborhoods with their own sets of local establishments and attractions. Honestly, though, unless you know someone out there, you probably have no reason to go.
The 2012 season started pretty brightly for UMass, with a good showing for their first home game in the stadium. That quickly dwindled, and the average crowd for a game now is small, quiet, and generally lackluster.
A big culprit here is the lack of student fan support. As mentioned above, the students eventually decided that, even with busing provided, watching the Minutemen lose in an empty, oversized cave wasn't worth the two-hour trip one-way. Though there remains a small selection of dedicated fans and a friendly, vibrant tailgating crowd, most of the fans now are alumni taking their kids to a college football game. There's nothing wrong with that sort of crowd, and those fans tend to be the most amiable; but at a Division I college football game, you expect more.
UMass is a college located in Amherst, Massachusetts, and the state capital of Massachusetts (and its biggest metropolitan center) is Boston. Therefore, it's logical to assume that most of UMass's fans will be coming either from Amherst or the Boston area. Gillette Stadium is located in Foxborough...a good 40 minutes out from Boston by car (much further from Amherst), and totally unconnected by public transportation. A commuter rail train runs to and from the stadium for Patriots games, but this was not extended to UMass games.
It's established, then, that anyone trying to catch a Minutemen game will be arriving by car. Problems continue to arise. While the stadium is located directly on Route 1, a pretty major artery and an interstate Route, it attracts traffic the way blood in the water would attract a shark. A single accident or another big event going on at Patriot Place can immediately lengthen anyone's trip.
Furthermore, the stadium's location on Route 1 subjects travelers to further complications that might arise on other connecting highways, like the more-commonly traversed I-95, or I-495, which provides the most direct path to the stadium if coming from the south. Basically, traffic complications and a poor choice of location create some notable access issues, even if actually finding the place isn't all that hard.
Catching a UMass game at Gillette is by no means a poor experience or a waste of money and time. In fact, tickets are fairly inexpensive for "big-time" college football, although they do seem to suffer from a slight bump due to the venue. Club level season tickets were $195 in 2012, while field level ran for $130. Single game tickets ranged from $25-$30 depending on the game in question.
Unfortunately, the product on the field is fairly poor. It's to be expected that a newly-minted Division I FBS team would struggle, but that doesn't make it any easier for a fan to swallow the poor play and big losses. Fans looking for a display of solid college football should probably look elsewhere unless they have a special connection to the team or the school.
However, the experience lends itself well to the members of the crowd who are alumni and have perhaps outgrown the urge to be loud and borderline-psychotic at sporting events, but instead want to enjoy a game in a world-class facility with interesting amenities. This applies to fans who want to bring their kids, as well, since they'll most likely encounter a family-friendly and welcoming community of fans while still getting a fairly inexpensive opportunity to catch a game.
If nothing else, Patriot Place itself adds a star to the rating, because even if the game itself is unsatisfactory, the sheer wealth of things to do around the stadium should be able to help a disappointed fan salvage the night.
It would be irresponsible to forget to mention the Hall at Patriot Place, which is a massive building housing the Patriots and Revolution pro shops as well as the Patriots Hall of Fame. Famous former players frequently drop by, and the museum-like facility provides a sort of step-by-step tour of the history of the New England Patriots franchise. It could theoretically be lumped into the "Entertainment" section of this score, but it seems to fit a little better here.
In closing, anyone who attends a UMass game at Gillette will be immediately aware of the stadium's first-class status, and could potentially be awed by the sheer magnitude and variety found in Patriot Place. However, the product on the field and the fact that it's obviously a stadium too big for the team playing in it mars an otherwise quality experience. Typical college football fans could do worse, but they could also do better.
**Credit: Thanks to Gethin Coolbaugh and John Janus for assistance in writing this review.
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