ORONO, Maine — Alfond Arena was transformed Tuesday night from a hockey rink into a high-energy basketball venue.
A crowd infused with University of Maine students provided a “sixth man” for the Black Bear men’s team, which earned a pressure-packed 71-68 America East victory over Vermont.
The announced crowd was 2,265 — which would be outstanding on any given night. The difference on Tuesday was, more than one-third of those fans were UMaine students.
“It was very pleasing. It was very exciting,” said Joe Roberts, UMaine’s associate athletic director for external operations, who pointed out 800 students attended the game.
“It was everything that you hope it would be when you draw it up three months in advance,” Roberts added.
UMaine enticed the students out into single-digit temperatures and across campus with “America East Beach Night Money Madness.”
The promotion asked students to dress in beach attire, with cash and other prizes offered to those who exhibited the most creative expression of the theme.
Hundreds of students turned out in shorts, tank tops, T-shirts and bathing suits wearing hats, sunglasses and all kinds of other beach garb.
The winners, a group of three students, took home the $500 top prize. Nine other honorable mention “beach-goers” were awarded $100 each. There also were other prizes given away at random.
Roberts pointed out that it took members of several UMaine departments — and an impressive effort by the basketball team — to pull off the successful venture.
“This is really a big part of the Blue Sky plan,” Roberts said of UMaine President Paul Ferguson’s campuswide initiative.
As part of that effort, Roberts has served on a committee focusing on student engagement.
“More than anything else, there’s a lot of communication between the different people on campus in their different roles,” he explained, praising especially those in residential life.
UMaine also did some marketing and promotion for the event, including beach-themed foods in the dining halls, cashiers wearing Hawaiian leis and a display in the Memorial Union. The message obviously was delivered.
The promotion was made possible by a $3,000 grant from the America East Conference. Most of it was spent on the prizes.
The past two seasons, UMaine had invested in its “Fandemonium” men’s and women’s basketball doubleheaders. However, UMaine changed its strategy after Roberts served on a league committee that recommended focusing on the basketball games broadcast on the ESPN family of networks in order to help maximize the exposure.
Tuesday’s game was shown on ESPN3, the sports network’s Internet feed. That made the contest available to millions of fans nationwide.
“I’ve got to think that America East and ESPN are going to want to come to Orono again and give us another shot because we put on a good show and the students showed up,” Roberts said.
Everything seemed to fall into place.
UMaine pulled out an exciting victory over the league’s top-ranked team, the students seemed to enjoy themselves, and the dynamic inside the arena most certainly helped the Black Bears win.
“The atmosphere was great down the stretch, gave us a lot of energy,” said UMaine junior Alasdair Fraser. “When we needed that last stop, the crowd really got amped up, so it was great.”
He was referring to the Bears’ final defensive stand, on which they limited Vermont’s Clancy Rugg to a long 3-pointer that missed as time expired.
For many years, UMaine students have provided a lively presence in the Alfond Arena balcony section during men’s hockey games. They have been less noticeable at basketball contests, although Roberts said student basketball attendance is up this season.
He conceded UMaine athletics does not have the ability to offer money and prizes for all basketball home games. The hope is, after experiencing Tuesday’s game, some UMaine students might go to another one.
They demonstrated that they can make a difference for the team by simply showing up and cheering, along with the UMaine pep band and other Black Bear fans. And UMaine students are admitted free to all games, so cost isn’t an issue.
“Maybe they’re going to make an alumni donation down the road or maybe they’re going to buy a Maine sweatshirt because they’re taking a little more pride in their university,” said Roberts, who pointed out athletics plays a role in students’ overall college experience.
“We’re trying to build that engagement with our students and with our community.”