ORONO, Maine — In April 1993, the University of Maine men’s ice hockey team jubilantly hoisted the NCAA Division I national championship trophy at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.
For most Black Bear fans, it is the apex of UMaine athletics history.
Along with a second national title in 1999, it remains one of few such highlights for the state’s only Division I college athletics program. While UMaine teams have achieved some big-picture successes since then, most have languished in mediocrity in recent years.
UMaine spent an estimated $16.6 million on athletics during the fiscal year that ended June 30. Despite a sagging state economy, the department managed by athletics director Steve Abbott balances its budget with the aid of more than $10 million annually from state funding and UMaine students.
Only two of 17 sports, men’s ice hockey and men’s basketball, bring in more money than they spend.
With the fall sports season at hand, the BDN asked UMaine officials how they measure the cost effectiveness of the athletics department and what those metrics show. They were asked how they justify the expense of competing at the NCAA Division I level.
UMaine officials say the role athletics plays can’t be measured simply in dollars and cents.
President Paul Ferguson, who began his term on July 1, 2011, called athletics “a beautiful front porch to the university.” Black Bear teams are among UMaine’s most visible and scrutinized entities, and athletic events often serve as people’s first exposure to the campus.
“It really does provide a venue for our students to develop leadership skills and team-building skills and offers the University of Maine a great opportunity to engage across the country with our peers in a very different venue and a different environment that really promotes quality development of the individual,” he said.
Athletics employs 90 administrators, coaches and staff members who serve more than 400 student-athletes. The department expenditures for the 2010-2011 academic year, used as the baseline here because that year is the most recent for which complete figures are available, were $16,347,073.
That represents 5.6 percent of the total $373.8 million budget for the Orono campus, according to Janet Waldron, UMaine vice president for administration and finance.
In 2010-11, athletics received more than $10 million, or almost 62 percent of its budget, from state appropriations and student tuition and fee payments. It considers this money revenue.
Some question how much is spent on athletics, given a state economy that has led to significant cuts in other areas of the university.
“It’s embittering to see all that goes on on one part of the campus [athletics] and how so much of the rest of the campus is neglected, to a certain degree,” said Howard Segal, UMaine’s Bird and Bird professor of history. “When you see, year after year, insufficient number of faculty, insufficient number of courses, deteriorating buildings, what are you supposed to think?”
Measuring athletics’ value
UMaine officials measure the value of athletics with data and subjective observations. They look at the academic performance and graduation rate of student-athletes, wins and losses, donor contributions, game attendance, community involvement, perceived impact on the local economy and athletics website hits .
Athletic performance has been unspectacular in recent years. From 2005-06 through 2010-11, UMaine’s eight most financially significant teams — football, men’s ice hockey, women’s basketball, men’s basketball, women’s ice hockey, baseball, women’s soccer and softball — posted a combined record of 714 wins, 774 losses and 46 ties, a .480 winning percentage.
On a national scale, men’s hockey made NCAA Frozen Four appearances in 2006 and 2007, football reached the the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs in 2008 and baseball captured America East titles and played at NCAA Regionals in 2006 and 2011.
Football and men’s hockey competed in NCAA postseason play during 2011-12, with football advancing to the national quarterfinals.
Officials boast about the student-athletes’ academic achievements. Last year, athletes earned a 3.04 cumulative grade point average, which is higher than that of the overall student body.
The most recent NCAA data show UMaine student-athletes who enrolled from 2001 through 2004 had a federal graduation rate (within six years) of 67 percent compared with 58 percent for the overall UMaine student body and 64 percent for Division I student-athletes nationally.
Segal considers himself a Black Bears fan and said athletics play a valuable role on campus. He is nonetheless critical of the special treatment student-athletes receive. He said athletes routinely are given first choice over most other students when registering for classes.
Segal lauded the academic support program for student-athletes run by Ann Maxim as having been instrumental in the strong numbers.
“The question is one of fairness. I come down on the side that every student, all other things apart, should be treated equally,” said Segal, who scoffed at the notion student-athletes might somehow be under more pressure because of their sports pursuits and visibility.
Athletics increase UMaine’s visibility
Ferguson’s interactions with a wide spectrum of UMaine constituents have given him a broader view of the value of athletics in promoting the university.
For example, last fall, Chris Treister dove into the end zone for a dramatic, game-winning conversion in overtime in a football victory at James Madison. It was ranked No. 2 on ESPN’s “Plays of the Day,” which meant a nationwide audience of millions saw it.
“How many times was that played, that the University of Maine got tremendous visibility?” Ferguson said.
UMaine has several former student-athletes playing professional sports. The National Football League representatives are Lofa Tatupu, Montell Owens, Mike DeVito, Javon Belcher, Matt Mulligan, Trevor Coston, Jerron McMillian and Derek Session.
Former Black Bears Dustin Penner, Brett Clark, Jimmy Howard, Mike Lundin, Ben Bishop and Teddy Purcell, along with coaches John Tortorella and Jack Capuano, are in the National Hockey League.
Athletics have generated millions of dollars for renovations to Alfond Arena, Morse Field, Mahaney Diamond, Kessock Field and the field hockey complex. UMaine also has raised most of the estimated $15 million toward an overhaul of Memorial Gym and the field house, including a $7 million state bond.
Segal has simpler concerns at Stevens Hall, which houses classrooms and his office. He said plaster has been falling from the ceilings in the historic building.
“This building, ironically, is pictured more than any other building on campus, but is not important enough to justify fixing up,” he said. “That’s a question of symbolism but it’s also a question of substance and it would not be allowed to happen in athletics.”
The cost of athletics
UMaine sponsors 17 sports, three more than the NCAA Division I minimum and fewer than the offerings at many schools of similar size. Athletic student aid accounts for the largest portion of UMaine’s athletics expenses and in 2010-11, the department awarded $5.7 million in scholarships. UMaine awards the maximum number of allowed scholarships in most sports, so when tuition is raised, so is the cost of scholarships.
Coaching salaries were next at $3.13 million, followed by support staff and administrative salaries, benefits and bonuses ($2.69 million) and team travel ($1.51 million). The other 20 percent of athletic spending includes areas such as facilities maintenance and rentals, equipment, uniforms and supplies, recruiting and game expenses.
The salaries of UMaine’s head coaches and administrators often draw the ire of those who question the value of athletics.
UMaine athletics employ five people who earn a total of $718,000 per year in base salaries. They include men’s ice hockey coach Tim Whitehead ($190,000), Cosgrove ($175,000), Abbott ($140,000), women’s basketball coach Richard Barron ($113,000) and men’s basketball coach Ted Woodward ($100,000).
In 2011-12, all employees of the University of Maine System received a UMaine benefits package that represented another 49.5 percent on top of their wages. It includes items such as medical and dental coverage and contributions to retirement health and savings accounts.
Abbott points out UMaine’s coaching salaries are modest compared to those of their counterparts in America East, Hockey East and the Colonial Athletic Association.
“Our coaches are very well-paid for the region that we’re in, but when you consider nationally what other coaches make, our salaries are low,” Abbott said. “We have to pay enough competitively to attract the higher-caliber people that we want representing our institution and educating our students.”
UMaine coaches always are replaced when they leave their jobs, usually at a higher cost. Segal said the history department has gone from 23 or 24 full-time faculty in 1986 to 14 or 15 today.
“When people die, retire or leave, they’re not replaced,” Segal said, explaining some professors don’t retire for fear their position, and the specialized courses they teach, will be eliminated for good.
“The diminution of faculty and courses is horrible,” he added.
UMaine also is in the process of hiring a senior associate athletic director, who will earn approximately $100,000 per year. Ferguson said the position exists at most Division I schools and is necessary to provide critical department support as the No. 2 administrator.
Where the money goes
Football is the most expensive sport and during 2010-11 cost the department $3.5 million. Almost $2 million of that went to scholarships, while coaches’ salaries and benefits accounted for $791,784 and team travel totaled $323,566.
Football recouped $250,000 for its guarantee game at Syracuse in 2010, but Abbott said that money goes toward the general athletic fund. Football also had the largest amount of contributions ($375,640) but operated at a deficit of $870,238.
Men’s hockey had expenses of $3.5 million the same year, but brought in $1.1 million in ticket sales and had a positive bottom line of $708,093. The university also counts as revenue institutional support ($1,076,994), contributions ($193,601), sports camps ($76,181) and $21,358 in game guarantees, among other sources.
Women’s basketball spent $1.1 million and the men accounted for $1.07 million in expenses. However, men’s basketball netted a $78,444 profit thanks to $326,670 in guarantee money for playing high-profile teams.
“Athletics has been very active in finding ways to increase its own operational efficiencies in order to save money toward budget reduction strategies,” Waldron said.
UM budget compares to peers
UMaine’s athletic spending and expenses are lower on average than similar universities, according to numbers compiled by USA Today in its online college athletics department finances database.
UMaine numbers are comparable to New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and to America East public schools Albany, Binghamton, Stony Brook and Maryland Baltimore County.
UMaine ranked fifth compared to those eight schools in expenses, revenue and state subsidies.
In that group, UMaine had the third most revenue (7.8 percent) from contributions and ranked No. 3 by securing 10.3 percent of its revenue from rights fees and licensing. UMaine spent less than 32 percent of its budget on coaches salaries, slightly below the average of its peers.
Generating revenue challenging
While much of its money comes from state subsidies and student tuition, UMaine athletics is challenged to generate enough income from other sources to remain viable and competitive.
The other primary revenue streams are donations ($1.45 million in 2010-11), ticket sales ($1.34 million), NCAA and conference distributions ($912,000), game guarantees ($648,000), royalties, advertisements and sponsorships ($630,000), sports camp revenue ($495,000), and program sales, concessions, novelty sales and parking ($369,000).
UMaine brought in $465,000 in 2010-11 from “other” areas, including facility rentals.
All UMaine students contribute to athletics through a portion of the university’s unified fee, which is assessed as a percentage of credit hours taken. Waldron said athletics receives $1.26 million per year from the fee, a fixed amount that has not changed since 2002.
That results in an approximate annual charge of $138 per student per academic year. She noted students may attend UMaine home games at no cost.
Ferguson has challenged departments campuswide to become more entrepreneurial. His Athletics Engagement Initiative is part of his Blue Sky Project, through which UMaine “aspires to be the most distinctively student-centered and community-engaged of the American Research Universities.”
As UMaine tries to boost marketing, increase ticket sales and solicit new donors, it is attempting to recruit more fans.
One area of emphasis is promoting a better game-day atmosphere. At football games, for example, tailgate areas will open earlier and outside vendors with different food offerings may be brought in to foster a more welcoming family atmosphere.
Attendance at UMaine athletic events has fluctuated in the last several years. Men’s hockey attendance dropped 10 percent during 2010-11 compared to 2006-07 but was up significantly last winter over the previous season.
Football improved 22 percent to 5,980 per game from 2008 to 2010. Men’s basketball has hovered near 1,400 fans, including a 10 percent boost from 2008-09 to 2010-11. Women’s basketball was down 38 percent between 2007-08 and 2010-11, but increased 7 percent last season to 1,353.
Officials admit empty seats mean untapped revenue.
Focused on the future
The financial challenges are likely to continue for UMaine athletics. Even with an economic upturn, the department will have to cultivate more donors, widen its fan base in a small market and find ways to keep costs in check to deal with growing expenses.
Officials were asked whether it would make financial sense to move to Division III, where scholarships are not awarded and coaching salaries are lower. That four-year reclassification process has been undertaken only twice in the last 25 years — by Birmingham Southern (in 2006) and Centenary (2010).
UMaine officials said they have no intention of making such a move which, among other things, likely would result in a decrease in the university’s perceived prestige.
UMaine officials are confident athletics will continue to serve students, entertain fans, re-engage alumni and expose people around the state, the region and the country to what UMaine has to offer.
“Part of a university’s livelihood is the connection with alums and their constituencies,” Ferguson. “To keep that and their pride is a huge return on investment.”