October 17, 2018
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For UMaine, ‘guarantee games’ a lucrative but ‘necessary evil’

ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine athletic department will receive more than $1.3 million during the 2018-2019 academic year for playing in so-called guarantee games for football and men’s basketball.

The UMaine football team already has played two such contests, which at the NCAA Division I level typically involve major conference schools paying mid-major opponents appearance fees to play road games at their sites.

The Black Bears received $300,000 to play at Western Kentucky University of Conference USA on Sept. 8 and $400,000 to play at Central Michigan of the Mid-American Conference on Sept. 22.

UMaine, a Football Championship Subdivision member, split those games against Football Bowl Subdivision foes, scoring a come-from-behind 31-28 victory over Western Kentucky and falling at Central Michigan 17-5.

The university is set to receive another $620,000 in guarantees this winter for non-conference men’s basketball games.

Those games include trips to the University of Denver ($75,000), the University of Utah ($90,000), the University of San Francisco ($85,000), Quinnipiac ($25,000), Duquesne ($85,000) and Rutgers ($85,000).

UMaine also will receive $175,000 for its participation in the Wolfpack Classic tournament, which involves road games at North Carolina State, North Texas and Saint Peter’s, and a Dec. 8 game against Princeton at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor — one of only four non-conference home games for the Black Bears.

“It’s one of those things that’s almost become a necessary evil,” UMaine athletic director Ken Ralph said recently.

Ralph became UMaine’s athletic director last month after spending the previous 11 years at Colorado College. He sees correlations between the use of guarantee games to generate revenue for the athletic department with how many research projects around the university’s academic departments are subsidized.

“Most of the research is done through getting grant proposals and grant funding, so it’s not just necessarily isolated to just athletics for going out and getting external funding to be able to support operations within the enterprise,” he said.

Ralph hopes to better connect athletics to academics at UMaine to demonstrate the similarities and challenges each faces.

“We go through some of the same trials and tribulations here in terms of establishing an expense budget, and maybe that will create a better connection.”

Financial considerations are why guarantee games have become routine for most Division I athletic programs. Schools from the biggest conferences try to fill out their home schedules to maximize revenue while mid-major programs seek to balance their budgets.

“Big programs like an Alabama or Texas or an Ohio State have larger revenue streams where their ticket sales, their annual giving, their licensing, and their television money can drive all of their revenue-generating targets,” Ralph said.

“For mid-majors it doesn’t work that way, so you look at all of your potential revenue streams and create a revenue budget to meet your target. One of the ways we reach our target at a mid-major school is to take guarantee games.”

UMaine has an athletics budget of approximately $19 million, but the department must bridge the gap between state-appropriated funds and expenses.

“Those guarantee games matter significantly. I don’t think we’d be able to give our students the same quality of experience without them.”

UMaine is following a national trend in playing non-conference road games for a paycheck.

More than $175 million will be paid out for NCAA Division I football games this season, many involving Football Championship Subdivision teams traveling to Football Bowl Subdivision foes, according to USA Today. Others involve lower-tier Football Bowl Subdivision teams visiting schools from the so-called Power Five leagues— the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12 and Southeastern conferences.

Take Western Kentucky of Conference USA, the school that paid UMaine $300,000 to play at its stadium. The Hilltoppers received $1.35 million to play at Wisconsin of the Big 10 on Sept. 1 and took home $400,000 for a visit to Louisville of the Atlantic Coast Conference on Sept. 15.

Mid-America Conference member Central Michigan, which paid UMaine $400,000 for its Sept. 22 game, got $1.15 million to play at the University of Kentucky of the Southeastern Conference on Sept. 1.

Guarantee games also are prevalent throughout Division I men’s basketball.

UMaine played six guarantee games during the 2017-2018 season (at Boston College, Texas Tech, Georgetown, St. Joseph’s of Pennsylvania, Fordham and Massachusetts) and four during the 2015-2016 campaign (at Virginia Tech, Providence, Buffalo and Duke).

“I think because of our geographic isolation these guarantee games mean more because you just can’t get on a bus, go play somebody and come right home,” Ralph said.

Guarantee games against larger programs also allow players to test themselves against top-level opponents and often provides schools like UMaine recruiting exposure in major markets.

“When [men’s basketball coach Richard] Barron can say, ‘Look, we’re playing in the Pac-12, we’re playing in the Big 10,’ that’s really enticing to recruits,” Ralph said. “It’s a really, really big deal, and the fact we can pick up a few bucks while doing it is even better.”

Ralph pointed out that the University of Utah would not make the trip to Maine, so a $90,000 check and the recruiting boost are a good trade.

UMaine also plays guarantee games in other sports such as women’s basketball and baseball, but in most cases those guarantees largely cover travel and lodging as the Black Bears face national-level competition.

Ralph has previous experience with guarantee games from his time at Colorado College. That school offers what he called “pretty generous guarantees” to fill out its Division I hockey schedule, which this year includes home non-conference series against New Hampshire and Vermont and a single game against Alabama-Huntsville.

Ralph explained that Colorado College also has paid guarantees to attract opponents to the Colorado Springs campus for men’s lacrosse, a Division III sport at the school.

“It’s mostly to defray the cost of travel for teams to come out,” Ralph said. “Any team that plays at Colorado College from Division III has to fly and most of those schools are not budgeted to take any flights at all.”

With so much guarantee money available from football and men’s basketball, it’s unlikely the trend will change for mid-major programs such as UMaine.

One dynamic Ralph plans to study as he becomes more familiar with his new school is whether there is any point of diminishing returns when it comes to guarantee games.

“Students want to push themselves against the best possible competition and these guarantee games give them a chance to do that,” Ralph said. “But at what point have you overdone it?”

The UMaine football team is 3-17 all time against Football Bowl Subdivision competition, with wins at Mississippi State in 2007 and at Massachusetts in 2013 preceding last month’s triumph at Western Kentucky.

UMaine will play two more Football Bowl Subdivision foes in 2019, a $300,000 guarantee game at Liberty University and a $325,000 payday at Georgia Southern.

Options could include continuing the recent scheduling of two Football Bowl Subdivision games annually from non-power conferences or playing just one foe from a power conference each year for a likely bigger singular guarantee.

Most other members of Maine’s football conference, the Colonial Athletic Association, played just one guarantee game this fall, with major-conference opponents, including North Carolina State, Air Force, Connecticut, Wake Forest, South Florida, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, Virginia, Colorado and Temple

Villanova and UMaine were the only CAA teams to defeat a major-conference foe this fall, with Villanova edging Temple of the American Athletic Conference 19-17 on Sept. 1.

“Do you take one game against an FBS school and take a big payday or do you take a couple of games against lower-tier FBS schools that you might have a chance to beat like Western Kentucky and give the kids this remarkable experience and still pick up a paycheck,” Ralph said. “It’s a good philosophical question.”

That question also extends to men’s basketball, where UMaine is 0-10 in guarantee games over the last two years with a 19.6-point average margin of defeat and just one loss by single digits — a 67-66 overtime setback at Fordham last Dec. 2.

Ultimately, there’s a bottom line to be considered that transcends wins and losses.

“So do you say maybe we can take a couple of those guarantee games off the schedule if we’re making more money in ticket revenue and I’m meeting my revenue targets?” Ralph said. “Maybe sponsorships go up, maybe donations go up, those are ways of doing it. It also can be done by allocations from the college itself.

“But if you’re not meeting your revenue goals you have to look at these guarantee games.”

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