Ken Ralph is pictured when he was introduced as the University of Maine director of athletics in August 2018. Ralph said UMaine lost $150,000 because of reduced NCAA basketball tournament disbursals. Credit: Ronald Gillis | UMaine

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The University of Maine athletics department is taking a $150,000 hit in lost revenue resulting from the cancellation of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament.

UMaine athletics director Ken Ralph said the development is significant, but he expects the department to deal with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic reasonably well.

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“We’re a small school that doesn’t have any debt service and our coaches’ contracts are very modest, so we’re able to better weather the downturn in

revenue,” Ralph said.

He explained that some of the nation’s largest athletics departments, and some schools in the conferences in which UMaine competes, aren’t so fortunate.

“The big schools have outsized coaching contracts and a massive amount of debt service for the facilities they built. Those payments won’t stop because the season stops,” Ralph said.

Ralph said he hasn’t been forced to lay off or furlough any athletic department staff members. His primary concern is making sure UMaine student-athletes finish the school year on a positive note academically. Final exams are next week.

With all the unknowns about what life will be like in Maine and on university campuses in the coming months, Ralph said he has been under a different kind of stress than usual.

“Everybody looks to you for answers and there are no answers,” he said.

One of Ralph’s jobs is to oversee fundraising designed to improve the facilities and student-athlete experience. His list of desired facilities upgrades includes a new artificial surface for Morse Field at Alfond Stadium, where the Black Bears play football.

He said donors have been incredibly supportive amid challenging times during their discussions via social networking platforms.

“Our donors, our sponsors, our corporate partners and our season ticket-holders have been wonderful. They have rallied around us,” Ralph said. “Some things might get delayed because the stock market, and real estate markets dictate certain elements of that.”

Planning for the unknown

Despite all the unknowns, UMaine is moving forward in the hope of having its teams return to competition during the fall semester.

Contingency plans have been discussed to deal with potential further complications that could be caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Things seem to be changing hour by hour,” Ralph said. “We have established our timelines to get a full fall season in but we also have re-start protocols if the timeline shifts so we will be able to properly prepare our student-athletes.”

If social distancing guidelines remain in place, life on campus, if allowed at all, will be altered severely.

“If you aren’t going to allow students to congregate in a residence hall, why would you allow it in a locker room?,” Ralph wondered.

“We’re going to have to be more creative than we have been about serving our students.”

Preseason practices for fall sports are scheduled to begin in August, but UMaine’s conference affiliations include Colonial Athletic Association for football. The 12-team league features 12 schools from nine states.

“One part of the country may be opened up and operating while another isn’t. You may have somebody on your schedule who can’t play even though you can,” Ralph said.

America East includes six field hockey teams from six different states and women’s soccer has nine teams representing seven states. In soccer, all are in the Northeast with the exception of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

UMaine’s football season is supposed to begin Sept. 3 at Ball State in Indiana and end Nov. 21 in Orono against New Hampshire.

One scenario, as is unfolding as professional sports such as auto racing and horse racing resume, is that games might be played without spectators to limit large gatherings.

It’s a possibility, if it means playing the games, according to Ralph. No fans in the stands would have further financial consequences for UMaine.

“The reality is, if you take the fans out of the equation in football, hockey and the two basketballs, we would have an excess of $1 million in lost revenue.”

In the meantime, UMaine must wait with the rest of the state and the country to see what happens next.

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