Fanny Wadling practices in Memorial Gym at the University of Maine in October 2019. So far this season, the UMaine men’s and women’s basketball teams have been playing all their games on the road. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

University of Maine officials are working on plans to hold home basketball games within the state’s 50-person indoor gathering limit, possibly starting in early January.

UMaine Athletic Director Ken Ralph said a decision could be coming soon.

“Our operations staff is working with the leadership at America East to determine if we have an acceptable plan to host at the 50-person mandated state limit,” Ralph said Tuesday afternoon. “We hope to have clarity on this issue in the coming days.”

Maine’s men’s basketball team is scheduled to play at home against New Hampshire on Jan. 2 and 3. The women’s basketball team isn’t scheduled for any home games until Jan. 9 and 10 against the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

If the Black Bears are allowed to host, games will be held without fans, with only essential team and game personnel at courtside.

It is unclear whether those games would be played on campus in Orono at Memorial Gym, also known as The Pit, or at Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, where the school’s basketball teams have played their home games in recent years.

Matt Bourque, the America East senior associate commissioner for broadcast media and partnerships, said the conference is working with UMaine officials to get home games for the Black Bears.

“The good news with Maine is that they were already scheduled to be off the second week of our season (Dec. 26 and 27), so that gives us a little more time to listen to Ken,” said Bourque. “He’s trying to find a solution where potentially they could play (at home), whether the restrictions loosen or in finding a way to work within that number.”

Bourque added that Maine is the only school in America East “dealing with that particular capacity limit. But others are dealing with different quarantines based on local and state CDC guidelines or different travel restrictions depending on which state they’re in. Each state is unique and we’re trying to keep track of all those protocols.”

All UMaine winter sports teams have spent the early part of the season on the road. The women’s hockey team has played six road games, going 4-2, while the men’s hockey team has played only two games (0-1-1) with eight games postponed – six when the university shut down sports for a two-week period following a positive COVID-19 case – and two more last weekend when the players went into quarantine.

The women’s basketball team has won all four of its road games after Tuesday’s 85-57 win in Hartford, while the men’s team has played three games after Tuesday’s 78-62 loss at Boston College.

While the basketball teams appear close to being able to play at home, it is unlikely that the hockey teams will be able to play at Alfond Arena this winter unless state officials grant a waiver to the 50-person indoor gathering limit.

Dan Demeritt, the executive director of public affairs for the University of Maine system, said Tuesday that university officials are “still having discussions” with state officials regarding home hockey games.

University officials have reached out several times to state officials, including two letters from university President Joan Ferrini-Mundy to Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and Maine Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Heather Johnson, asking for a limited waiver that would allow the Black Bears to exceed the indoor gathering limit for hockey games at Alfond Arena.

In those letters to state officials, Ferrini-Mundy noted that it would take 98 individuals to hold a collegiate hockey game at Alfond Arena. That would only include, she said, team members, support staff and game officials.

State officials have so far refused to grant the waiver. In a press conference on Dec. 11, both Gov. Janet Mills and Lambrew said that recent increases in positive COVID-19 cases across the state raise concerns about granting any waivers. With Tuesday’s 458 new cases, the rolling seven-day average of new cases is now 461, more than double the average from a month ago.

“I think that we’re always concerned about changing those policies when we have this kind of spread,” said Lambrew. “We do recognize there are some settings that are big and spacious where there might be a way to accommodate public health. But I think at this time, we have some concerns.”

Gov. Mills added, “We didn’t give an exemption to Oxford Plains Speedway last summer. We haven’t given exemptions to people with large facilities of other sorts. It’s really tough to make exemptions to stray from general rules, especially when many states are reducing the indoor gathering limit, not expanding them, not granting more exemptions.”

Ralph said the university will continue to follow whatever directives the state issues. “If that means we have to play on the road for now, that’s what we will do,” he said.

In a Nov. 17 letter, Ferini-Mundy said basketball games would require 70 individuals. But in a Dec. 8 letter, she noted, “We have re-assessed our plans for basketball and can successfully conduct competition at home within the 50-person gathering limit.”

Demeritt said he did not know what had changed over that time to change UMaine’s needs.

There are financial implications for the athletic department if all games are on the road, with increased costs for transportation, meals and lodging. But both Ralph and Demeritt noted that some of those costs are offset by playing fewer games and not having to host games and pay for officials and game staff. Demeritt could not give a precise cost for the program, but said, “I will not say it is immaterial.”

He added, “The variance in the athletics budget would be a relatively small piece of the $80 million in unanticipated expenses and lost revenues tied to COVID-19 across the System, however.”

Even without fans in a building, there is an advantage to being the home team in a hockey game. The home team gets the last line change before a faceoff and can create the matchups that it wants.

“Even without a crowd, there is a decided advantage to being a home team in that sport,” said Ralph, who added that he asked Hockey East officials if Maine could be considered a home team for one of the games in each two-game weekend series if the game was originally scheduled for Orono.

Brian Smith, the associate director of Hockey East, said the league is still hoping that Maine can play some games at Alfond.

“If it becomes clear that Maine won’t be able to host for an extended time for the season, or not at all this season, then we will begin those discussions (about Maine being a home team),” he said.

He added that no other Hockey East teams have the same indoor gathering limits that Maine has. “We’re constantly talking to (Maine officials),” said Smith.


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