ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine men’s hockey team under first-year coach Red Gendron has made amends for last year’s disastrous home performance.
After going a dismal 2-9-6 at Alfond Arena last season and not winning their first home game until Feb. 3, the Black Bears have rebounded to go 9-1 through their first 10 home games.
But the success has yet to provide dividends at the box office.
Maine’s average attendance of 3,949 is 286 per game lower than the first 10 games of last season.
There already have been six games in which the Black Bears have drawn fewer than 4,000 fans and that is one more than the previous four years combined through the first 10 home games.
Last season’s average attendance was 4,235 through the first 10 home games; it was 4,450 in 2011-12, 4,954 in 2010-11 and 4,462 in 2009-2010.
Maine did have a sellout of 5,125 against Boston College in November, its first sellout in three years, but the two games against UMass, the first of two games against Vermont, a Sunday game against UMass Lowell and the last two games against American International College all drew fewer than 3,800 fans.
Administrators and fans feel the primary culprit has been the team’s lack of success leading up to this season.
After a run of nine consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, Maine has missed the NCAA tourney five of the last six seasons. That led to the firing of 12-year head coach Tim Whitehead with one year left on his contract.
“Maine has gone through a rough stretch lately and nobody likes to watch a loser. Once they start winning, the fans will come back,” said Rob Baker, a longtime season ticket holder.
The lack of success has been the biggest reason attendance has dipped, according to former athletic director Steve Abbott, who added that it coincided with a steep decline in season ticket holders.
Maine’s season-ticket base has been sliced in half over the last six years, according to Joe Roberts, the associate athletic director for external operations.
“We currently have 1,844 season-ticket holders. We used to have around 3,600,” Roberts said.
Season-ticket holders Tony and Anne Mourkas of Hampden said they remembered the days when a Maine hockey ticket was a valued item.
But the recent demise has devalued the ticket.
“They need to make it cool to go to a Maine hockey game again,” said Tony Mourkas.
“They need to win. People are taking a wait-and-see attitude [before investing in a ticket],” said Anne Mourkas.
Spiros Polemis and his wife, Buffy Parker, are season-ticket holders from Stockton Springs who also attend the team’s practices with some regularity.
Polemis thinks the economy also has contributed to the attendance decline.
“Money is an issue and people have gotten out of the habit of going to Maine hockey games,” Anne Mourkas said.
Roberts said ticket prices have gone up this season to $23 for all regular season games in an attempt to raise more revenue.
Last season, tickets were $23 for games against rivals New Hampshire, Boston College, Boston University and Vermont and $19 for all other games. There are also some premium seats that go for $50.
Roberts said that UMaine has reduced the ticket prices for three exhibition games against Canadian schools Dalhousie, St. Francis Xavier and the University of New Brunswick from $19 to $15.
He pointed out that UMaine’s ticket prices are in the ballpark with other Hockey East schools.
The University of New Hampshire charges $26 for games against Boston College, Boston University and Maine and $24 against everybody else.
The tickets range from $15-30 at Boston University and from $13-$36 at Boston College. Vermont charges $20 per game.
Maine charges $350 for season tickets for 17 home games, which is also comparable with the other schools.
Some schools put together special ticket packages.
“Historically, ticket packages like that haven’t done well for us,” said Roberts. “The last time we did something like that, five or six years ago, we sold only 41 tickets.”
Baker said UMaine’s concession stand prices aren’t going to win over any fans, either.
“It’s $5 for one of their new gourmet pretzels,” he said.
Baker and other season ticket-holders believe the athletic program needs to find ways to raise money in these challenging economic times.
He is glad to spend his money on taking his family to the games but said that between the ticket prices, parking and concession costs, “they’re leaving some people out.”
Two years ago, the university began charging $10 for parking in the two lots on the right side of the main road that leads to the field house.
“One of those two lots used to be reserved for donors and the other one was free for anyone. Now they can choose to park in either lot for $10,” Roberts explained.
The parking lot closest to the arena behind the football grandstand is reserved for donors but the big parking lot between the arena and the field house on the left-hand side of the main road offers free parking.
“You can say we’ve reduced parking but you can look at it another way and say we’ve increased parking if you’re willing to pay for it,” said Roberts.
Maine has several games televised every season and that has also affected attendance, according to Abbott. Maine has had six home games televised already this season.
“Walk-up sales can be impacted by television if you have a bad weather night,” said Abbott. “Our hockey fans come from all across the state.”
But Abbott was quick to point out that televised games are also a major plus because “it’s a great way to engage our fans who can’t make it to many games. We have the only Division I sports program in the state and it’s nice to be able to reach fans all over the state.”
Another issue affecting attendance has been the schedule.
The reduction in Hockey East games from 27 to 20 this season left Whitehead scrambling to put together a nonconference schedule. He added a pair of nonconference games against Hockey East opponent UMass and the Black Bears have also played weak Atlantic Hockey schools American International and Bentley through the first 10 games.
Maine also had to move the UMass Lowell game from Saturday night to Sunday afternoon because the school was hosting its first ever NCAA football playoff game on Saturday in Orono.
The result was a crowd of only 3,182 against a team that won the Hockey East regular season and tournament championships in 2012-13 and reached the Frozen Four.
Gendron has been busy trying to upgrade the schedule for future years and said he intends to do his part to put people in the seats.
“If we’re a winning program, more people will come out to watch us,” said Gendron. “The only thing I can control is how hard we play and how well we play. I’ll do whatever I can to help the team win games.”
Administrators and fans have said Gendron’s approachability and willingness to interact with fans across the state have been a real boost as well as the fact the team is just one win away from equaling last year’s win total. Gendron has gone outside to talk to students lined up for tickets before a game and also mingled with the fans inside.
Roberts said student attendance is already up from 650 a year ago to 725-730 this season.
Abbott said group sales and corporate sales are an area the university should explore in the future, calling it “potential that is untapped.”
He also noted there is a misconception across the state that fans can’t obtain Maine hockey tickets.