By Jim Churchill
Not great, but good. That is how I would characterize the start of the 2016-2017 athletic season at the University of Maine with an eye on football and hockey.
The main criteria we are considering for this purpose are simple and straightforward.
– Is the team competing?
– Is the team entertaining?
– Are the results improving?
– Is attendance rising?
The best marketing for any athletic program is winning. Period. Football and hockey are maybe the two most important athletic programs on the Maine campus. These two programs are hugely important to the business of the University of Maine athletic department with hockey being king. The basketball programs have the potential to make image and financial impact with a run that leads to the NCAA Tournament.
Maine football and hockey were a combined 11-32-6 last season. Those kinds of numbers, my friends, are not good for business. And after that kind of performance, the Black Bear faithful are looking for progress. How are we doing?
Let’s start with football. First year Coach Joe Harysimiak, the youngest head coach in Division 1 football, has lead the Black Bears to a turnaround season right out of the gate. The “good” grade above could be elevated to a “very good” with a UMaine win over rival UNH Saturday at Alfond Stadium. A victory for Maine would likely propel the Black Bears into the FCS playoffs.
Is Maine football competing? Obviously. After losing their first three games, the Black Bears have won 6 of their last 7 games. It has not come easy though, as all six wins have come by margins of 7 points or less.
Is Maine football an entertaining product? If the dramatic wins are not enough, the UMaine offense under first year coordinator Liam Coen, while sputtering at times, has certainly been more creative than units from the recent past. The 2016 Bears have featured playmakers on the defensive side of the ball and on special teams. Maine is averaging 22.4 points per game in 2016 compared to 14.9 points per contest in 2015.
And, on top of the product on the field, the game experience for home games has been greatly improved with adjustments made by the athletic department.
Are the results improving for Maine football? A resounding yes. The Black Bears finished at 3 – 8 in 2015. Even if Maine cannot pull off the win vs. the Wildcats, a 6 – 5 season in 2016 is a 3-game step in the right direction. A win against UNH in the regular season finale takes it to a whole other level. Either way, Maine football has our attention once again!
Has attendance improved at Alfond Stadium this year? Affirmative. As I said, the Black Bear football team has caught the attention of the fans. UMaine is averaging about 2000 more fans per game in 2016 as compared to the 2015 attendance figures. I am guessing Maine will set a new November attendance record on Saturday against New Hampshire as well.
Now to Maine hockey. Dennis “Red” Gendron is in his fourth season leading the Maine hockey program. The head coach has focused on bringing in his kind of players in an effort to rebuild the culture and bring the glory back to Black Bear hockey. The returns to date? It has been a struggle.
Has Maine hockey been competitive in the first third of this season? Mixed results. The “compete level” for the Bears on the home ice at the Alfond has been high. Maine is 4 – 2 at home. The same cannot be said for the Black Bears on the road where it has been a challenge to say the least. UMaine is 0-5-2 away from Orono including a loss at Vermont on Friday night 6-2. The road difficulties for Maine this season are a continuation of road woes during recent campaigns. This has to change.
Is the current edition of Black Bear hockey entertaining to watch? Compared to last season, yes. Maine certainly has shown a little more firepower. Through 13 games last season, the Bears were averaging about 1.6 goals per game. That average is 2.6 so far this season. When UMaine got down early last season it was difficult to think comeback. This season, at least so far, there have been flashes.
Are the results improving for Maine hockey to this point of the season? The eye test says the Black Bears are improved. The numbers say things are slightly better. UMaine hockey was 2-8-3 through 13 games last season albeit in a heavily weighted road schedule. The Bears are 4-7-2 through thirteen games this season.
Has attendance improved at Alfond Arena this season? Yes. Through six home dates last season, the Black Bears were averaging about 4,170 fans per game. Through the first 6 home dates this season, Maine is averaging about 400 more fans per game with an average attendance at 4,575. With a capacity of 5,125 at the Alfond, things can get better provided the Black Bears bring the excitement on the ice.
A good product generally leads to better business. Maine football is proving that once again in 2016. The jury is still out on Black Bear hockey.
Jim Churchill is the host of The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.