A recent visit to Orono provided the opportunity to stop in at Pat’s Pizza and the added benefit of picking up a University of Maine football pocket schedule. Of course, the UMaine schedule, and its opener of Sept. 2 against Albany in Orono, had been released several months ago, but the pocket schedule is always a sign that football season is looming and with it the chance to head to Alfond Stadium.
When attending the games, however, it’s always a bit perplexing as to why there are so many empty seats. The Black Bears are always competitive, play against the best FCS teams in the nation and have talented, skilled players, evidenced by seven former Bears in the NFL last season.
In the first 10 seasons of the new Alfond Stadium (1998-2007), UMaine averaged 5,811 fans in a facility that has a capacity of 8,381, according to UMaine athletic director Blake James. In the past two seasons, the attendance has dipped to an average of 4,693 in ’08 and 4,631 in ’09.
The reasons UMaine football has not been a big fan draw are due less to the quality of football being played and perhaps more due to weather, televising many of the games and apathy from not only the general public but also the student body.
James and his staff fight a perennial battle against these obstacles, but one they can’t control is the weather.
“We get a great turnout at the start of the year, but as the temperatures go down, so do our crowds,” he said.
Some of those fans may be turning on their TVs to watch the UMaine games in the cozy confines of their homes. The exposure and increased awareness of the UMaine program to a statewide TV audience is one that, understandably, the school can not turn down.
Despite the allure of TV for some UMaine fans, James still believes attendance can increase for the games.
“I never would want to go away from having TV coverage because you get so much awareness from it. But I think on certain days it does [hurt attendance],” he said. “I think if it’s going to be 10 degrees outside and people can sit at home and watch TV, I’m sure that’s something they think about and I’m guessing that there’s some people that do stay home and if it’s 35 degrees and raining, they might stay at home and watch it on TV.
“It’s disappointing when that happens, but at the same time we have a wonderful television partner and you see the great benefit of having the games on throughout the state like we do now. And obviously it’s one of those that I’d like to have both. I’d’ like to have a full house and statewide television coverage and I think we can. I think it’s something that’s possible. We have to get people out and enjoying Alfond Stadium and the great level of football we have here. I think the more we educate people on the value and the level of play, I think we’ll see the bigger crowds coming out.”
More fans may also turn out based on the success of the program as average attendance increased to 6,701 per game in 2003 after UMaine had two straight appearances in the NCAA tourney. Throughout the period of the new Alfond Stadium, UMaine has continued to play competitive football, winning 54 percent of its CAA games since 2000 in a conference which has had a team in the national final in six of the last seven years.
More people may want to consider experiencing this type of good, live football and attend a Maine football game. It’s football on a fall day — a slice of Americana at its best and it’s a safe bet that first-time fans will enjoy their experience at Alfond Stadium. Then, there’s a good place down the road to grab a pizza after the game.