The Universal Notebook: Black Bears give soccer the boot
Certainly, I understand the University of Maine (like all institutions of higher learning) is facing severe budgetary problems and that athletic budgets have to be a part of the belt tightening. What I did not understand is why the university decided to suspend men's soccer as the way to trim its athletic budget. So I called UMaine Athletic Director Blake James and asked him.
Last week, James announced that the university would cut men's soccer and women's volleyball in order to address a projected $871,000 athletic budget shortfall next year. I'll let someone else champion volleyball, but here in a soccer hotbed like the Portland suburbs, it's hard to imagine how soccer rose to the top (or sunk to the bottom) of the cut list.
"There wasn't a good solution," James insisted.
Though the UMaine men's soccer team has not been a winning program (5-10-2 last season), he insisted that its performance was not a factor in the decision to cut the team. Pressed for reasons beyond the diplomatic admini-speak of "an overall evaluation of our programs," James' answers suggested it probably was.
"Had we been winning the league every year, it probably would have looked different," he admitted. "If the roster was full of kids from Maine, we probably would have looked at it differently. If the alumni base had been raising hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, it probably would have looked different."
Bottom line? Men's soccer wasn't competitive. Only five of the 26 players on the team were from Maine. And boosters weren't pumping big money into the program. Bye-bye, soccer.
James said the university did consider the obvious, seemingly more equitable approach of across-the-board cuts to all team budgets rather than cutting two teams entirely, but he felt that team budgets were already "diluted and deteriorating," so asking everyone to take a hit would "further deteriorate the program."
A lot of online and sideline commentators have suggested that UMaine should consider playing Division III soccer along with smaller schools such as Colby, Bates and Bowdoin, but James says, "You can't really do that." Some colleges play D1 in one or two sports and D3 in all others, but the NCAA frowns on a university playing D1 in most sports and D3 in one or two because D1 programs tend to have support staff and facilities that would give a D3 team an unfair advantage.
Asked what message cutting soccer sent to the thousands of Maine kids who play soccer (many of them year-round), James said, "Half those kids are young women. We still do have women's soccer. What is the message to the other half? We don't have a Division 1 soccer program, but we do have a lot of other great offerings."
And that leaves the University of Maine in the unenviable position of having cut men's soccer in a state where more kids play soccer than any other sport. I guess they just didn't play it well enough to make the Black Bears a contender.
Upon reflection, it's hard to know whether UMaine should have packed its soccer team with Maine kids or gone the hockey route of recruiting in Canada. A losing program with a lot of Maine players might have survived. Only three of the 27 University of Maine hockey players are from Maine, while a dozen hail from Canada and two come from Sweden. But hockey wins.
In the end, it's all about winning. Soccer loses.