ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine sponsors 15 Division I varsity athletic programs. For most, the combination of the school’s geographic isolation from its opponents and budget constraints create considerable challenges.
A handful of Black Bear sports programs are better able to cope with those issues with the help of some dedicated “friends.”
UMaine’s football, men’s ice hockey, women’s basketball, baseball and softball programs are backed by booster organizations. They provide a support network for the coaches and student-athletes and raise money to help the teams.
Maria Baeza, who recently completed a 15-year run as the president of the Friends of Maine Women’s Basketball, said the groups have a dual mission.
“I think fundraising surely is a biggie, but I think as big is to create a culture of support for the student-athletes and for the program in general,” she said.
Baeza estimated there are 100 members in the Friends of Maine Women’s Basketball, which is gaining momentum after a bounce-back 17-15 season by coach Richard Barron’s team.
During the fiscal year that ends June 30, UMaine’s athletics friends groups are expected to have raised in excess of $100,000. That represents about 3 percent of the five teams’ base budgets, which total $3.25 million and include salaries, wages, benefits and operating expenses (fees, recruiting, supplies, equipment, some travel, telecommunications).
The teams include the friends groups’ fundraising as anticipated income for the annual budget.
Baseball benefits greatly from money raised through the Friends of Maine Baseball. The boosters have generated almost $26,000 this year, accounting for 9.6 percent of the program’s $269,089 budget.
“Without my group, I’d be in really deep trouble,” said baseball head coach Steve Trimper.
“If we didn’t have our friends group, I would find it hard to fund the program at the level we’re currently funding it.”
Trimper said the money brought in through the baseball golf tournament, its cocktail party and other functions enable the Black Bears to spend March break playing in Florida.
UMaine softball has a modest budget of $221,000, but coach Lynn Coutts’ team is bolstered by its boosters, who brought in $16,097 this year — 7.3 percent of the total.
Fundraising events conducted by friends groups vary greatly, but most sponsor a golf tournament. Hockey and women’s basketball do a “50-50” raffle at home games, and some have dinners or social gatherings featuring food and drinks donated by members or local businesses.
“With the budgetary constraints that athletics face, more and more responsibility has fallen on the friends group to augment the budget,” Baeza said. “There was a time when we used to raise money for extra things, and now we raise money, really, to supplement the budget for travel, basic stuff.”
The football program is UMaine’s most costly, with a 2013-14 budget of $1.2 million.
With the help of the Alfond Challenge, the Friends of Maine Football organization helps lessen the financial sting with its fundraising initiatives. The group of some 300 members, including 235 former players, expects to bring in more than $13,000.
Head coach Jack Cosgrove explained that all donations made through the friends group are doubled through a matching grant from the Alfond Challenge.
“All the money that we bring in goes toward the Alfond Challenge,” Cosgrove said. “It all goes into one big pot of money that we can use to do the things that we’re not able to do normally or to meet the rising costs of Division I athletics.”
Another important revenue stream for the booster groups are their annual dues, most of which range $50-$100 per person.
The friends’ efforts in fundraising and promoting the programs help allow coaches to concentrate on their sports.
“I can focus on coaching the team and all the things that go with that,” said men’s hockey head coach Red Gendron. “These people are absolutely amazing. I don’t know what I would do without them.”
Playing by the rules
Since they are directly affiliated with the athletics programs, all activities sponsored by UMaine’s friends groups and their members are regulated by the NCAA. The organization’s rules govern what boosters can and cannot do in supporting the respective programs.
“Everything that they do is designed to enhance the experience of our players within the NCAA rules,” Gendron said.
The friends are an extension of UMaine athletics and are monitored by the department to ensure compliance.
“When we meet, we usually have a university official there,” said Joe Ferris of Brewer, who heads the Friends of Maine Baseball, which includes about 200 members. “We certainly want their guidance. We don’t want to do anything wrong.”
Friends members must be cautious about providing student-athletes with any assistance or benefits, whether it be money, food, services or even a ride in their vehicle. Baeza said the Friends of Maine Women’s Basketball routinely includes a section about NCAA compliance issues in its “HOOPS” newsletter.
“We’ve educated our membership to be paranoid and to be super careful,” she said. “Because of our own excitement and loyalty and involvement with the program, we don’t want to create a problem.”
All in the ‘family’
UMaine student-athletes, coaches, staff members and friends group members all make up what Gendron referred to as one big family.
They share the joys of victory when the team wins and collectively feel the sting of defeat when the outcome isn’t positive.
“There’s a bond between the fans around here and athletics at UMaine,” Gendron said. “These people do tremendous things, and they do it from the heart.”
The women’s basketball group stresses that members should commit themselves to the overall good of the program, rather than a few players or coaches.
“The friends group needs to remember that their loyalty is not to any one individual player or coach, it’s to the University of Maine women’s basketball program because that’s going to stay. Everyone else is going to come and go,” Baeza said.
The organizations aim to introduce fans to the coaches and student-athletes of the different sports and help them appreciate how their efforts can contribute to the experience for all involved.
“The Friends of Maine Hockey do an absolutely exceptional job of not just raising money but creating a bridge between us and the fans,” Gendron said. “They do things that create better experiences for our players.”
The more, the merrier
UMaine director of athletics Karlton Creech is hoping to help the school’s friends groups grow and increase their effectiveness in the future.
Toward that end, some boosters are already re-evaluating their efforts to have a greater impact on their respective programs.
The Friends of Maine Baseball has formed three committees to spearhead events, membership and social media/communications.
“We have our friends group to raise money, which we really need; we want to get Maine baseball promoted in the community and get people to come see what we do; and we need to reach out to alumni and supporters,” Trimper said.
Most of the friends organizations are active year-round. During the season, members often meet before or after home games — and sometimes on the road — at the venues.
The Friends of Maine Women’s Basketball is adjusting to the move from Alfond Arena to the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. It no longer has free access to a postgame meeting space and is prohibited from taking in home-made food.
Baeza said that has hampered the Friends of Maine Women’s Basketball’s ability to socialize with student-athletes, coaches and fans.
One thing is certain, the friends organizations play an important role in supporting and promoting UMaine’s football, men’s hockey, women’s basketball, baseball and softball programs.
Prior to each home game at Alfond Stadium, Cosgrove visits with the boosters in the tailgate area and does a brief question-and-answer session.
“They represent the best of Maine and Maine athletics,” he said. “They’re essential to our program. They’ve modeled what I think is important, that we have to make friends before we can raise funds.”