Guarantee games put money in Maine coffers

Posted Dec. 25, 2009, at 8:45 p.m.

The University of Maine men’s basketball team got a financial assist, and a big shot to their budget this year from an unlikely source: the UMaine football team.

As the Black Bears were lining up Syracuse for their annual Division I Football Championship Subdivision game this season, the two schools’ athletic directors also discussed the possibility of having Maine play the Orangemen at the Carrier Dome as part of both schools’ non-conference basketball schedules.

“The Syracuse game kind of came as a result of the football game,” UMaine athletic director Blake James explained. “They needed a football game and we needed a basketball game.”

Have team, will travel

It didn’t take long to hammer out an agreement as Maine officials agreed to play Syracuse on the road Dec. 5. In exchange, Syracuse paid Maine a $100,000 guarantee.

“In many cases, you want a home and home but a lot of times they won’t want to do that, so they’ll pay more to offset the loss of a home game,” said James.

That $100,000 payout is almost a third of the total Maine has received from four schools (Syracuse, Connecticut, Boston College and Fordham) this year to play on the road.

“In general, we’re bringing in about $318,000 total from those games,” said Maine men’s head coach Ted Woodward. “That’s the most so far since I’ve been head coach. I don’t know if we ever brought in more than $100,000 or $120,000 before I became head coach.”

UMaine’s total athletic budget is $15.5 million per year. The guarantee money is a huge boost to an athletic budget that is constantly being trimmed and streamlined as cost-cutting measures are the norm at the state land grant university.

“It’s a huge part of the revenue stream for every athletic department,” Woodward said. “We have a certain amount of money we have to bring in and these [guarantee/road games] are a great way to bridge the gap.”

Fortunately for lower- and mid-level-tier Division I basketball programs like Maine, opportunities like these abound, even during present economically-challenging times.

“This is how it’s really been for awhile, but the money’s gone up in recent years,” said Woodward. “There are plenty of those games to be had if you’re interested, but those are also high level teams that will be difficult to beat. You have to be very careful about going overboard.

“You’ve got to keep some balance in your schedule, with teams that will play at your place and theirs, and not just away games. Four games like those are probably the high end for our level per season.”

The four games represent roughly a third of Maine’s 13-game non-conference schedule.

What do Top-25 teams like Syracuse and Connecticut get out of these deals? Plenty.

Although $100,000 for one home game seems steep, consider a school like Syracuse with a 50,00-seat arena like the Carrier Dome and ticket prices ranging from $20 to $50 per ticket. Those schools stand to score at least $1 million per game even before concession and souvenir sales figured in.

“The high major programs make a ton of money when they play at home,” Woodward said. “There are always going to be guarantee games because teams like Syracuse and Connecticut can pack 20,000 fans in their home arenas.”

Guarantee games have virtually become a cottage industry. There are even web sites dedicated to networking college coaches and athletic directors and facilitating schedule arrangements, sort of like a craigslist.com for college athletic programs.

“Some schools will post notices with contact information and usually the fees are posted, but they’re very negotiable,” said Woodward. “Some pay more than others.”

The general practice through the years has been for teams to negotiate non-conference games based on a home-and-away basis: Team X agrees to play team Y at home in 2010 and then on the road in 2011.

Guarantee games basically trade cash for the requirement that the paying team reciprocate by playing at the other team’s home arena.

Likely losses reap financial gains

It’s a tradeoff for schools in conferences like America East. Big payoffs for a nearly certain road loss.

“They’re great experiences, but they’re tough,” said Woodward. “You’re going to see every major conference have 20-win teams because of the schedule and the fact that a bulk of their non-conference schedules, and maybe all, are home games.

“I would never say we’re playing a game that there’s a likelihood we’re going to lose, but they are a challenge,” Woodward said. “I do think it can be a good recruiting thing, but it’s a question of how many you do. We’re at the top among America East teams with four this year.”

Last year, Maine brought in $250,000 for playing road games against B.C., Providence, Oklahoma, and South Alabama (USA Basketball Tournament).

And where does that money go?

“The money goes into the general fund and is distributed to all our athletic programs,” said James. “It’s distributed through our annual athletic budget. It’s not broken down in terms of being earmarked for any particular program after going into the general athletic budget.”

Maine has played an average of two guarantee games per year for the last 25 years, which is about the same amount of time that guarantee games have become staples in Division I college basketball. Maine’s payout for these games has been between $40,000 and $120,000 per year in that span.

“On the men’s side, with what schools are paying for a guarantee, it’s hard for us to make that kind of revenue even if we sell out the game in a home and home arrangement and have someone like Syracuse at Alfond Arena,” said James.

Of Maine’s guarantee games over the years, at least one has been against a team from one of the six major conferences (Big East, ACC, SEC, Big 10, Big 12, and PAC-10) .

Maine now averages four guarantee games per year, three of which come against major conference teams like Syracuse and Boston College.

The Maine men have generated approximately $1.3 million over the last six years from playing guarantee games.

“For mid-major types of programs, it’s hard to turn down that kind of money, especially when you’re trying to find any way possible to generate revenue these days,” said Woodward.

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