An interactive college football fan map compiled by the New York Times using Facebook “likes” spoke volumes this week. The first was a reminder that the University of Montana remains in the NCAA Division I and its Football Championship Subdivision.
The other glaring reality taken from the graphic is that the Oregon Ducks have a reach that many professional football teams would envy. It extends from San Francisco north to the Columbia River and east into half of Montana.
Only the Texas Longhorns can claim a larger geography of fans, according to the Times’ graphic.
The map makes no mention of UM or Montana State University because it is reserved for teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, such as the Washington Huskies, Arizona State Sun Devils and the Colorado Buffaloes.
In the Mountain West Conference – one that courted UM a few years back without success – teams like the Air Force Falcons, the New Mexico Lobos, UNLV Rebels and San Diego State Aztecs enjoy a noticeable presence.
The Boise State Broncos and Nevada Wolf Pack may claim the largest region of fans among teams in the Mountain West, leaving one to wonder what the graphic might look like if the Montana Grizzlies were to jump to the FBS and leave the FCS behind.
I’ve asked school officials about that possibility before, mostly in jest. The answers usually come with a grin and they're always non-revealing.
But one can’t ignore UM’s latest push to invest millions of dollars to upgrade its athletic facilities. And one has to wonder if these upgrades are part of a long-term plan to help boost recruitment and take the leap to the FBS, like Marshall University has done so successfully.
The Washington Foundation recently gifted UM around $7 million toward its planned $14 million Washington-Grizzly Champions Center. The center will connect to the football stadium and include new locker rooms and a weight room that other programs will envy.
If you haven’t been to campus recently, there’s also a gaping hole in front of the Adams Center. It didn’t get there by accident. It will soon house a new $2.5 million student-athlete academic center – another nod to school athletics.
Both projects will be paid for with private funding, as were the ribbon boards that now grace the interior of Washington-Grizzly Stadium. As for those boards, UM's Athletic Department believes they add to the fan experience, and I believe they’re right.
It’s that fan experience the school is keen on keeping. At least in Montana, it’s hard to compete with the Grizzlies in popularity, and there are few games that sport the atmosphere that’s displayed on Saturday afternoons in Missoula when the stadium is filled.
When this conversation comes up – and it often does – some have told me that UM’s fan base exists because the Grizzlies have had a winning football program for so many years. They also feel that fan base would be diminished if the Grizzlies began to lose, even to FBS teams.
I’m not so sure about that. I for one would rather watch the Grizzlies compete against the Wyoming Cowboys, the Hawaii Warriors and the Colorado State Rams than, say, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks, the Southern Utah Thunderbirds or the Northern Colorado Bears.
Of course, there’s more at stake than a two-bit opinion like mine – more athletic scholarships and additional seating inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium among them. But even so, joining the Mountain West would only boost the school’s profile at a time when profiles count for so much, including student recruitment.
At any rate, it would be nice to see UM listed on a NY Times football fan-base graphic, not because the Grizzlies win, but because they were big enough to be considered among such athletic rankings.