PORTLAND, Maine — University of Maine Athletic Director Steve Abbott on Thursday talked about the economic impact of college sports and also addressed the sorts of skills that student athletes pick up outside the classrooms.
Abbott, who was Sen. Susan Collins’ chief of staff from 1997 to 2009 before an unsuccessful gubernatorial run in 2010, noted the “unbelievable anger” that he saw in society, from the tea party movement in 2010 to the “Occupy” movement of 2011. But those movements can only achieve so much, Abbott said, speaking at the Portland Regional Chamber’s Eggs and Issues breakfast.
“There’s no action, people can’t work together, can’t work in institutions,” said Abbott. “I think it’s great that people want to be heard, but we need to do something to actually compete. Sleeping under a blue tarp in front of the courthouse in Portland isn’t going to help us compete with China.
“That’s what our athletes learn — how to work together, compete.”
There are 400 student athletes at UMaine, which hosts the state’s only Division I sports program, Abbott said. The students earn a degree while also competing at the collegiate level, said Abbott, acquiring a work ethic while learning what it is to be part of something bigger than themselves.
Abbott noted a recent study looking at the impact of college athletics on the place of women in industry over the past 30 years, since the advent of Title IX. According to the study, 81 percent of women in the work force who make more than $75,000 a year identify themselves as “athletic,” he said.
Abbott also spoke of the place college athletics has on campus life.
“Our athletic events are sort of the social center. It’s what binds us together, our students and our faculty, and it also ties us to our alumni,” said Abbott.
And while the university gets good publicity for its academic and research work in areas such as UM’s “bridge-in-a-backpack” project, the sports program puts UMaine in newspapers and on TV in Maine daily, he said. The hockey team has regional and national contracts for broadcasting the games, and other programs also get good coverage depending on the game and the level of play.
A good season for the UMaine hockey or football team has a “profound” effect on college applications, Abbott added.
And a program such as the one at UMaine has an economic impact on the area, as well, said Abbott. Fifty teams travel to the Orono campus each year for competitions, said Abbott. When they come, they stay at local hotels, eat at restaurants and bring fans with them. He estimated that an average team spends $4,000-$5,000 locally.
The college spends $15 million on sports each year, the operating budget for the athletics department, with a staff of 90 people. Two thirds of that comes from tuition and state taxpayer support. The rest comes from fundraising, corporate support, ticket sales and other areas such as sales of T-shirts, concessions and more.
The department also spends on infrastructure and uses local contractors for the work, said Abbott. UMaine spent $5.5 million last summer to renovate the Alfond Arena, with $3.5 million coming from the Alfond Foundation.
The college plans a $14 million renovation of the Memorial Gym, as well. Of that, $7 million comes from the state for hazardous material remediation and handicap accessibility upgrades, said Abbott. Of the remaining $7 million, $5 million comes from New Balance Co., he said. That’s the largest corporate gift in the history of the school, said Abbott, and a model that makes sense going forward.
“I think it’s a great relationship for us and the university — New Balance is a great partner to start with,” said Abbott.