ORONO, Maine — Rock ’n’ roll music will be playing in the background while the smells of southern barbecue, pizza and fried sausages waft across the complex and laughing children frolic in an inflatable bounce house.
It might sound as though the fair is in town. Instead, it is the atmosphere University of Maine officials are hoping to create Saturday at Alfond Stadium.
The main attraction is UMaine’s 6 p.m. home football opener on Morse Field against the University at Albany.
However, the university is ready to roll out what it hopes will be a more festive and enjoyable game-day atmosphere for its students and fans with “Black Bear Fanfair.”
“The whole area will feel like the [American] Folk Festival,” said Robert Dana, UMaine’s vice president for student affairs. “We’re going to have lots of food, lots of energy, lots of excitement.”
Dana said the efforts are part of an athletics initiative tied to UMaine President Paul Ferguson’s “Blue Sky Project.”
“One of our main interests is creating a sense of connection, a strong sense of engagement, a very real sense of community,” Dana said of football game days.
In addition to the usual items such as hot dogs, popcorn and soda, UMaine plans to unveil a food court with numerous other offerings. The area, nestled mostly between the south end zone and the scoreboard, will be bustling with activity.
As fans enter the main gate on the southeast corner of the stadium near the bronze statue of UMaine benefactor Harold Alfond, they will encounter new tents and food booths. To the left will be Moe’s Original Bar B Que of Bangor, which features pulled pork, ribs, chicken and turkey.
To the right, they will encounter UMaine dining services vendors offering baked turkey legs, sausages and bratwurst, pizza and fried dough. For the first time, there will be a “Bavarian Beer Garden” where patrons can enjoy an adult beverage.
“The goal is to maximize our revenues with our concessions,” said UMaine athletics director Steve Abbott, “and the way to do that is to provide better and more diverse offerings and points of sale.”
While the university is catering, literally and figuratively, to its paying customers, the students are among the primary targets of the initiative.
UMaine has worked in recent years to create a sense of camaraderie among its first-year students through a variety of shared activities during their first year on campus. As a tie-in, students are being encouraged to attend football games and other athletic events together.
Many will arrive by the newly-constructed Alfond Way, a paved path that runs from Kessock Field, past Mahaney Diamond and Alfond Stadium, to Alfond Arena. It is designed to serve as a conduit from the Hilltop residence complex to the sports venues.
A rock band will begin playing sometime around 4 p.m. Saturday — when the gates will open — inside the stadium grounds. Several pregame activities will be geared toward students.
“We’re saying, this is your campus, this is your opportunity for traditional enjoyment of sports, this is a way to make tradition,” Dana said.
Abbott said a designated student seating section has been created in the bleachers on the east side of Alfond Stadium, behind the visiting team’s bench. During games, students will be joined there by the UMaine marching band, to provide a sense of unity and cohesiveness.
“The real driving force behind this was the president’s charge to engage more with our student fans and to enhance the college experience for all our students,” Abbott said.
Dana said the university has reinstituted its Superfan program, a competition among the school’s most avid sports fans. Students will have the chance to keep track of their attendance at athletic events, with someone at the end of the school year winning a $5,000 scholarship.
The Fanfair concept has understandably generated a buzz within the football team, which should benefit from any boost in attendance and excitement at home games.
“We need all the love we can get,” said UMaine senior linebacker Donte Dennis. “I’m happy that I’m here to see the change happen.
“We need that energy from the fans. We all go to the same school and we represent Maine,” he added.
UMaine head football coach Jack Cosgrove explained that he and his team were privileged last year to play in some amazing atmospheres. They would like to experience a similar ambiance in Orono.
“We’re excited to see if some of the things that we’ve been planning as a university, as a community, come into play Saturday,” he said. “There’s a little bit more of an excitement level to it.”
The Black Bear Fanfair concept came about through the efforts of several UMaine departments.
Abbott said athletics has worked closely with UMaine dining services, the student affairs office and the people in facilities management. The UMaine Athletic Advisory Board also has been active in the project.
There are numerous issues that had to be ironed out involving logistics, electrical access and some new dining equipment.
“The bottom line is, these ideas have come from a wide variety of people across campus and it has involved several constituent groups,” Abbott said.
UMaine also will encourage fans to enjoy traditional tailgating, which will continue in designated parking lots located outside the stadium.
Abbott cautioned that Black Bear Fanfair is a bit of a work-in-progress and explained the plan will be carried out and developed over the next three years.
“What we’re trying to do is to really build our fan base, build traditions and make game days an important part of the college experience,” he said.