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UMass officials celebrate, defend decision to switch athletics teams to Mid-American Conference

At a press conference March 8, 2024, UMass Amherst Chancellor Javier Reyes (left) joined the school's athletic director, Ryan Bamford, and Mid-American Conference (MAC) Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher, to discuss the university's decision to accept an invitation from MAC to compete in the conference starting in 2025.
Thom Kendall
University of Massachusetts Amherst Athletics
At a press conference March 8, 2024, UMass Amherst Chancellor Javier Reyes (left) joined the school's athletic director, Ryan Bamford, and Mid-American Conference (MAC) Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher, to discuss the university's decision to accept an invitation from MAC to compete in the conference starting in 2025.

On the field and court, and in the swimming pool, most University of Massachusetts Amherst men's and women's athletic teams will compete as part of the Mid-American Conference (MAC) starting in 2025.

At a press conference Thursday, Director of Athletics Ryan Bamford said joining the conference will allow UMass teams to grow and thrive — and meet what's ahead.

"It's no surprise to anyone in this room that college athletics is changing rapidly," Bamford said. "Thelegislative and legal changes and challenges are persisting."

Joining the MAC was an opportunity to focus on two objectives, Bamford said. First, being part of a conference with other like-minded public research institutions, and to be part of a conference that UMass officials believe will allow the athletics department to grow and thrive, and find stability.

Money out, money in

What also drove the decision, Bamford said, is the shifting environment in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) conferences.

"I really felt like with the changes in the FBS model, the structure and what's happening to the NCAA, this was a chance for us to bring a relatively young FBS football program, to allow us to nurture it, to invest further in it, but also bring along a portfolio of sports that have had a tremendous amount of success in the Atlantic-Ten," Bamford said.

UMass football switched from the Football Championship Subdivision to the higher-level FBS in 2012. The university was a football-only member of the MAC until 2015, when UMass was given the option of becoming a full member or departing. The team has been an independent ever since.

The school enters the MAC acknowledging additional funding will be needed, Bamford said.

Atlantic 10 schools are clustered mostly in the Northeast, while MAC schools are centered around Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. So costs will increase a bit because of plane travel.

"But it's a 5 to 8% increase," Bamford said, and being in the MAC "will allow us to grow our revenues to the department by anywhere from eight to 10 times what we're currently seeing from a conference standpoint, right as we enter the league."

Travel for student athletes is not expected to significantly increase from where it is now in the Atlantic 10. Bamford said the missed class time will be very similar.

"We have so many Division I institutions within a 4-to-6 hour radius that we can get on a bus and play in the non-conference schedule," he said. "So we don't anticipate that our missed class time will be an issue at all, and we've had those conversations with the academic side of our enterprise."

That is a change of thinking from a decade ago, when UMass declined the MAC's offer for full membership. The athletic director at the time, John McCutcheon, pointed to the geography and the impact on "student-athlete welfare."

Athletics in the era of a new chancellor

The decision to switch the school's athletics to a new conference happens in UMass Amherst Chancellor Javier Reyes' first year. He said joining the MAC is part of a campus-wide strategic plan.

All athletics, not just football, are an integral part of the campus experience, Reyes said, which he acknowledged is a very "big-picture idea."

Reyes took an opportunity at the press conference to talk about other initiatives underway — in the school's labs, classrooms and performing arts facilities. He also highlighted the intangible benefits of the MAC.

"Being able to be playing on a Wednesday night nationally, being able to have consistent visits to specific areas of the country that will allow us to fly the UMass flag in many places, in ways that it will result in increasing our stature, our reputation, increasing our recruitment and enrollment," Reyes said.

The addition of UMass to the MAC allows the conference to expand its geography and establish a presence in the northeast, said MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher. He said this is the first full-member invitation the conference has issued since 1998.

"The opportunity to add Massachusetts was simply too great to pass up," Steinbrecher said, adding that is is rare to be able to add a flagship university that had strong academics and a tradition of sports.

The move to the MAC includes almost all UMass teams. Men's hockey will remain in Hockey East, and UMass is looking for membership for men’s soccer, men’s lacrosse and women’s rowing programs — which don't compete in the MAC.

Other coaches weigh in

Thursday's event was a moment for UMass to celebrate all the athletics moving over to the MAC, officials said.

But it is football that got UMass to this moment, said men's basketball coach Frank Martin.

"I've seen what investing in football does for the whole athletic department," Martin said. "As a coach when I was young, I got frustrated when I needed more for our program ... and they'd say, 'I can't.' But then I saw all this investment in football, football, football, and as I've gone through my journey, there's one sport that elevates all of us to a different place, and that's football."

The Atlantic 10 is a "drastically better" conference for basketball than the MAC, according to MassLive columnist Matt Vautour, who cited analytics site KenPom.

But change brings growth, Martin said, and he was "super excited" for a future in the new conference.

Football coach Don Brown noted that UMass is no stranger to the MAC. In addition to its previous time in the conference, UMass has continued to play MAC teams as an independent.

"Two, three, four teams," he said. "Next year we're playing five MAC opponents."

Entry to the MAC is not until the 2025-2026 school year, Brown reminded his players the other day.

"Let's go back to work," he said he told them. "We have to pay attention to what's in front of us, and that's the schedule for next year."

Disclosure: The license for NEPM’s main radio signal is held by UMass Amherst. The newsroom operates independently.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."

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