BANGOR, Maine — There were a lot of wide eyes and bright smiles Thursday afternoon inside the Cross Insurance Center.
Members of the University of Maine men’s and women’s basketball teams were thrilled to get their first look at the new home of the Black Bears.
“It’s more of an exciting feeling,” said freshman Garet Beal of Beals Island, who showcased his basketball skills next door at the Bangor Auditorium, which has since been demolished.
“I played in the auditorium for four years, but having the opportunity to play here is special,” he added.
UMaine President Paul Ferguson, UMaine athletics director Steve Abbott, Bangor City Council chairman Nelson Durgin and Black Bear basketball head coaches Ted Woodward and Richard Barron spoke briefly to players, UMaine and Cross Center staff, and the media.
Abbott conceded playing at the Cross Center will result in increased costs for the university. UMaine has entered into a five-year deal with facility management Global Spectrum under which it will pay $2,500 per game, plus expenses, for a total of $5,500 to $7,000.
“We get the gate [ticket revenue] and they keep concessions and anything else,” said Abbott, who on Tuesday announced he is leaving UMaine this fall to rejoin Sen. Susan Collins as her chief of staff.
He added that the fees for rental and expenses are in line with what UMaine has paid to use the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland.
It cost UMaine more than $3,000 per game to put down and dismantle the basketball court at Alfond Arena, which has served as the Bears’ basketball home on the Orono campus since January 1992.
With its per-game expenses going up $2,500 to $4,000. UMaine is counting on increased ticket sales to offset the increase at the Cross Center. Abbott said UMaine’s break-even figure is for only 750 to 850 fans, the numbers the athletics department used to develop its 2013-14 budget.
“If we start attracting more fans to games, which we hope to do over the next couple years, playing here financially will be a better deal for us, in addition to this being a great venue, which was the No. 1 draw,” he said.
Should the arrangement not work out, the contract between UMaine and Global Spectrum includes an option clause that will permit either party to terminate the agreement.
“We want it to work,” Abbott said, “but if it’s not working for us or it’s not working for the city, we can terminate it, with notice.”
The plan to use the Cross Center as a game venue became a viable option after UMaine officials discovered that even a minimal renovation of the Memorial Gymnasium on the Orono campus would cost in excess of $20 million because of engineering and architectural concerns.
The university instead opted to use approximately $10 million in its proposed $15 million upgrade to the field house and gym to improve locker rooms, offices and meeting spaces — in addition to infrastructure work needed to bring the building up to code.
That work is expected to begin in 2014.
“The upgrades that they have going on are certainly needed in there,” Woodward said. “It’s a very old building and I know it’s got a lot of challenges, but I’m excited about that, too.”
Abbott said the construction of the $65 million Cross Center only 10 miles from campus was the perfect solution for a basketball home court. He estimated that at $6,000 per game, it would take UMaine 133 years to spend $20 million, without taking ticket sales or other expenses into consideration.
“Being there today, seeing the kids on the floor and seeing the way they reacted to it and the way everyone reacted to it, I’m more convinced than ever it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Both UMaine teams will have the chance to practice in Bangor, something they were unable to do at Alfond Arena, where the the men’s and women’s hockey programs take priority. Even on game days, the basketball floor wasn’t in place until 60 to 90 minutes before game time.
“We won’t be coming down here every day, by any means,” Woodward said, “but at the same time the availability to practice and feel like this is home is a great thing.”
The Cross Center court features a UMaine athletics logo in the center and a navy blue border around the natural color of the hardwood surface. It also includes America East Conference logos and the words “Maine Black Bears,” “Bangor,” “UMaine.edu” and “Cross Center.”
“I couldn’t really picture how the floor was going to look in here, but I saw how nice the facility was and I was really excited about it,” said junior Courtney Anderson of Greene.
All eight of the women’s conference games and six of eight men’s AE contests will be played in Bangor. Global Spectrum and UMaine officials are still negotiating on how many of UMaine’s 11 nonconference regular season games will be played at the Cross Center.
“It’s really great to have a gym to call your own,” said senior Ashleigh Roberts. “I’m really excited to get playing.”
Barron said playing in the new facility will provide a big boost to UMaine basketball and give fans easy access and comfort.
“It’s fun to see it come to fruition,” he said. “The scoreboard’s up and the ribbon boards are up and running. It feels like home for us and the kids are really excited.”
Only this week has the Cross Center been holding its official grand-opening events. Yet the building was benefiting UMaine basketball as early as last spring.
“It’s already made a huge difference [in recruiting],” Barron said. “I think it says that we’re serious about basketball and it’s a wonderful place to see games. There’s a ‘wow’ factor when we bring kids in.”
Woodward called the impact on his recruiting “extreme.” He likened the dynamic to the boost the renovations to Morse Field at Alfond Stadium had on UMaine football recruiting.
“I don’t know that anybody [we play] has a nicer facility than us,” Woodward said. “I think it gives you great energy and excitement.”