PRINGFIELD - The University of Massachusetts athletic department is considering a return by the men's basketball team to the Civic Center, where the Minutemen have not played since 1995.
Civic Center Acting General Manager Kimberly A. Walsh said discussions are in the preliminary stages. A UMass game in Springfield next season is possible. However, the university has made no commitment either for the 1999-2000 season or beyond, she said.
"The ball is in their court now, but of course, a UMass game in Springfield would have a positive impact on the downtown area, just as any event we'd book would have," said Walsh, who has met with UMass Athletic Director Robert Marcum to discuss the project.
Walsh said it was too early to attach specific dollar figures to the potential economic impact.
Last week, Marcum said he was considering bringing UMass back to the Civic Center, where the Minutemen last played on Jan. 3, 1995 against West Virginia. He said several factors, including economic viability and market exposure, would affect the decision.
Marcum downplayed the prospect that a Civic Center game would be incorporated into next season's schedule but also did not rule it out. Walsh said if a game could be booked for the 1999-2000 season, the Civic Center remains flexible on dates.
The building's major tenant is the Springfield Falcons hockey team, whose schedule now is being determined, she said.
"As the time passes, it would naturally become less flexible, but we'll certainly be happy to work with UMass on this," she said.
Springfield Mayor Michael J. Albano said there are limits to what the city could do to help, because the Civic Center is now state-owned and operated. But he said he would provide whatever municipal support he could.
"There are financial factors involved (for UMass to move a home game), but I've always thought it was in UMass' best interests to be involved with Springfield," Albano said. "We would do whatever we could to help put a good package together."
Albano mentioned police presence, marketing, promotion and the involvement of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as ways in which the city might show its support.
Several factors contributed to the absence of UMass from Springfield for the last four years, but the biggest has been the size of the building. The Civic Center's capacity of about 9,000 seats for basketball has put it at a disadvantage against the six-year-old Mullins Center, which serves as UMass' home site and which seats 9,493.
Before last season, UMass had sold out 55 of its 63 games at the Mullins Center, including 45 straight at one point. That meant not only did UMass retain full control of the event by playing it on campus, but attendance was higher than the smaller Civic Center could match, even at full capacity.
But last season, UMass averaged 6,723 fans for its home games. The university also has played games in recent years at the 14,500-seat Worcester Centrum, but a game against Boston College in Worcester last year drew only 7,172 fans.
UMass first played at the Civic Center in 1973 and hosted the four-team Abdow's Classic as a Christmas tournament from 1990-1993 in Springfield. But as the team's success grew, the opportunity to play nationally televised events at larger, neutral-site arenas created new, more lucrative scheduling options.
According to UMass Associate Athletic Director Bill Strickland, the university is seeking to ensure it would not lose money by moving a home game from its campus arena to Springfield.
"We're finally seeing success in bringing big-name teams to the Mullins Center," said Strickland, pointing to last season's appearances in Amherst by Connecticut and Kansas. "We have to be very careful with our home schedule and season-ticket package."
If the game is included in the season-ticket package, Strickland said, UMass would seek to be involved with not only the season-ticket allocation but also the remaining seats, to make sure that all its obligations could be met.
If the game were kept out of the season package, Marcum said he would like to avoid losing money, but is not insisting on an appearance fee, as some schools receive in similar circumstances.
Marcum said he has never ruled out returning to the Civic Center.
"We've never forgotten about Springfield," he said. "What about the Tip-Off Classic?"
The Tip-Off Classic has brought two nationally recognized teams to the Civic Center each November since 1979. UMass defeated Arkansas in the 1994 game, but that game is scheduled through a separate Tip-Off committee.
Indiana will play Temple in this year's Tip-Off Classic. No teams have been booked for the year 2000 and beyond, and Tip-Off officials have said UMass remains in consideration.
If UMass decides to book a game from its regular schedule at the Civic Center, Marcum said, it would likely come against an Atlantic 10 Conference opponent.
hile some of us wonder when we'll be seeing some recruits' signatures on official letters of intent, the University of Massachusetts men's basketball program is working on other important issues, too.
UMass is considering a one-game return to the Springfield Civic Center, possibly as early as next season. Athletic director Bob Marcum has his reservations, but says the idea is being discussed.
Civic Center acting general manager Kimberly Walsh doesn't want a preliminary negotiation to be interpreted as a sealed contract, but she's definitely interested.
Will it be easy to seal the deal? No. But is it worth it? Yes.
First, let's be honest. It's tempting for Springfield fans to react cynically, unimpressed that they may at last be deemed worthy again, and only because next season promises to be an even tougher ticket sell in Amherst.
But that's also a classically self-defeating position. Just because UMass has not been in Civic Center picture lately does not mean it can't or shouldn't be in it now.
Springfield is viable again only because the guaranteed 9,493 Mullins Center sellout has been replaced by last year's 6,723 average. Even the Temple game didn't sell out, so while the Civic Center's 9,000-seat limit doesn't help its case, it no longer kills it.
Even so, there's financial risk to moving a home game from your own arena to another, smaller venue, and UMass doesn't want to lose money. Nor should it.
A UMass game in Springfield would be also viewed as a test case, and the city's track record of supporting events is hardly spotless. Even the 1993 UMass-Cincinnati game of Top 25 teams drew a less-than-full 8,011.
It remains to be seen how, say, UMass-Fordham would do, especially if UMass keeps struggling.
Still, UMass last played at the Civic Center in 1995, and it wasn't a good way to say good-bye. The team was a national phenomenon, and by the time season tickets, sponsor seats and other VIP allocations were meted out, there were no tickets left to sell to the public. In some ways, that was worse than having no game here at all.
Since then, watching the Minutemen find time to play in Boston and Worcester — but not here — has bothered those who believe Springfield is a loyal and vital part of the UMass family that should not be discarded, forgotten, or taken for granted, depending on whether the team is hot or not.
Loyalty won't make this deal come true, but economics might. UMass doesn't need Springfield. But it could use Springfield, and Marcum is looking at whether any advantage, such as market expansion, is achieved by moving a game to a smaller arena.
The answer was easy when UMass sold out at home. But if the Minutemen are going to draw — 5,500 some nights at Mullins, they could do that in Springfield, too.
UMass has actually strengthened its bargaining clout in one way. Quality teams such as Kansas and Connecticut are finally coming to Mullins, strengthening the value of the entire home slate.
Any home games, even against lesser opponents (and that's who Springfield would get) cannot be moved blithely. But that shouldn't rule the Civic Center out, either.
It hasn't ruled out Worcester, largely because that the Centrum is bigger than Mullins. But last year's UMass-Boston College game drew 7,172 in Worcester. You could fit that many into the Civic Center, too.
At any rate, for the first time in years, more than tradition, sentiment and loyalty favor a game at the Civic Center. Playing in Springfield does not expand the UMass market, but strengthens what's already there. And right now, that's what UMass needs.
The obstacles are there, but worth overcoming. Springfield's fans count, too. For their sake, once a year is not too much to ask.