ORONO, Maine — WABI TV5, the CBS and CW television affiliate in Bangor, is ending its long-standing relationship with the University of Maine.
But WABI will televise six regular-season high school football games beginning with a Class A matchup between Deering High of Portland and Bangor at Cameron Stadium in Bangor on Friday, Sept. 20.
It is the first time in several years that WABI has televised regular season games, although it has broadcast the state championship games regularly.
WABI TV5 concluded its three-year contract with Learfield Sports, which manages the broadcast rights for several institutions including UMaine, after this season and negotiations broke down between Learfield and WABI TV5 in January, according to WABI TV5 general manager Mike Young and program director Steve Hiltz.
“It’s a bittersweet moment,” said Young, who noted that the station televised its first UMaine football game in 1953.
“We’re disappointed that we aren’t continuing to broadcast University of Maine sports but that is overridden by the fact we know we’re staying involved in local TV and doing some great high school football games in the fall,” said Young.
“We’re very excited about it. It’s going to be cool working with local schools and students again,” said Hiltz.
He called the venture “baby steps” and said they will explore doing other high school sports at a later date.
Young said they reached out to Learfield a year ago to begin initial dialogue with them to sign a third consecutive three-year deal.
“But there were conflicts with their schedule so we really didn’t start meaningful dialogue with them until late-September, early-October,” said Young.
That was much later than usual, he added.
“We were content to leave things the way they had been the first six years,” said Hiltz. “They had a few things they wanted to revisit. We did, too. We were able to come to an agreement on some things but not everything.
“We made an offer in January and they said they were unable to accept it at that time. We hit a roadblock,” added Hiltz.
“They were looking for concessions and we were willing to listen. We made some of them [but not all of them],” said Young.
That was the final communication between the two sides, so Young and Hiltz began looking at other broadcast options.
“We couldn’t wait any longer,” said Hiltz.
Hiltz wouldn’t go into detail about the differences between the two sides but said “it wasn’t directly financial.”
In a statement to the BDN, Learfield Sports indicated it is going in another direction and is exploring other options locally, regionally and nationally.
“Learfield Sports has been working diligently and closely with its local entity, Black Bear Sports Properties, as well as the university’s athletics administration to identify strategic distribution partners for the Black Bears in the coming years.
“The necessity of selecting distribution partners is imperative in order to maximize University of Maine’s visibility and recruiting efforts,” Learfield said in the statement. “It is without question that Learfield Sports, in conjunction with the university, will be openly communicating its decision on the Black Bears’ future TV flagship as soon as it is agreed upon and can be shared publicly.”
Hiltz said there “wasn’t any anger” in the dealings between the two sides.
“We’ve had a good relationship with the university and with Learfield. It wasn’t contentious. We just agreed to disagree,” said Hiltz.
WABI TV and CW had broadcast men’s hockey games and men’s and women’s basketball games in addition to football games.
“I think it has usually worked out to 12 games each year: three football, seven hockey and two basketball,” said Hiltz.
Hiltz said the network made money on the deal but didn’t reveal the exact amount.
He pointed out that they have broadcast Maine games since 1953 with the exception of a stretch between 1989-1997 when NBC affiliates WLBZ Channel 2 in Bangor and WCSH Channel 6 in Portland earned the rights.
But WABI regained the rights in 1997 and have held them ever since.
Maine athletic director Steve Abbott said “we have always had a very good relationship with WABI. They have historically done a good job producing our games.”
He said even though things haven’t worked out, he would be happy to talk to them in the future.
WABI has partnered with other stations in addition to the CW over the years: WGME in Portland and, more recently, WPXT and WPME in Westbrook.
In addition to the Bangor-Deering game, the other high school games that are going to be televised by WABI will be Stearns of Millinocket at Bucksport (Sept. 27), Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield at John Bapst (Oct. 5), Skowhegan at Brewer (Oct. 11), Waterville at Mount Desert Island (Oct. 18) and Brewer at Hampden Academy (Oct. 25).
All games will start at 7 p.m. and news co-anchor Jon Small, who also handled the play-by-play on Maine hockey broadcasts, will be the primary play-by-play man.