The Maine high school basketball tournament normally marks an annual rite of renewed relationships for Suzanne Fletcher and the staff at Timber Kitchen and Bar in Bangor.
The restaurant at the Residence Inn by Marriott on Bass Park Boulevard — across the street from the Cross Insurance Center — has become a familiar stop for fans each February vacation week since it opened in late 2015.
The hotel’s 124 rooms typically are sold out during tourney time, and that also means big business for the restaurant.
“During the tournament we have a lot of families that come and pretty much make a vacation out of it,” said Fletcher, Timber’s general manager. “They stay here for the whole week, and go to all the games and eat in the restaurant for lunch and dinner.
“Over the years we’ve gotten to know many of the families that come to the tournament every year.”
There will be no such interactions this year as the 2021 basketball tournament has been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For boys basketball, some version of a state tournament has been held every year since 1944. The East region did not stage an event in 1943.
No tourney means lost opportunities for the athletes and coaches to etch their names into Maine sports history. It also means lost revenue for the arenas, cities and businesses; the tournament organizer, the Maine Principals’ Association; and those who usually work in the venues.
“High school basketball tournaments always represent a boost in our business across the hotel, restaurants and gaming floor,” said Austin Muchemore, general manager of Hollywood Casino Hotel and Raceway, located just across Main Street from the Cross Insurance Center. “We will miss the families and fans from all over Maine who flock to Bangor for the tournaments and the hometown pride we get to see first hand, but understand the reasoning behind the decision.”
Fletcher anticipates significant losses for the restaurants nearest to the Cross Center on outer Main Street during tournament week. She said Timber likely will lose at least $40,000 for the week.
“The occupancy at the hotel will definitely suffer and so will sales for that week, just as they have with other events that haven’t been going on, too,” she said.
“The tournament’s a little bit of a unique loss because it’s a weeklong event, a little different from a one-night concert. But it’s just a really great environment — family friendly — and definitely will be missed this year.”
The browsing business
Tourney time also coincides with Presidents’ Day sales by major auto manufacturers, and free time during a stay in Bangor, Augusta or Portland prompts many fans to browse area car dealers looking for their next vehicle.
“I don’t think we’ve ever done any exact statistics on increased sales during that time, but there’s definitely more drive-thrus, and the more people we can get taking looks at the vehicles brings more opportunities for sales,” said Joe Quirk, president of the Quirk Auto Group in Bangor.
Quirk said in a normal year visits to dealerships often set the stage for future sales, unlike at restaurants, hotels and shopping malls where the tourney-week transactions are more immediate.
“It’s the restaurants and hotels and gas stations that probably take the brunt of it because that’s a big peak for them at that time of year,” Quirk said.
Darling’s Auto Group is among Bangor dealerships that have tailored advertising efforts toward tournament fans over the years. One of its contests allowed shoppers to take free throws at baskets set up at the dealerships, and if they made a certain number they could earn a discount on a car purchase.
“I think it’s a time when people from [Aroostook] County come down here, and with some great discounts from the manufacturers they’ve thought it was a good time to upgrade their vehicles,” Darling’s marketing manager Lorilei Porter said. “That definitely was a contributing factor.”
Porter said the car-selling season won’t be the same this year without the tournament crowd.
“Obviously there isn’t going to be that excitement in the air that the tournament brings,” she said. “The automotive industry overall has fared better than expected during COVID, but it’s not as much fun.”
Few businesses are affected more by the cancellation of the tourney than the host arenas.
For the Augusta Civic Center, the Cross Insurance Center and Portland’s Cross Insurance Arena and the Portland Exposition Building, the tourney is one of their busiest times of the year.
The Augusta venue has hosted tournament games since it opened in 1973, with fans traveling from Jackman along the Canadian border and southernmost York County to the capital.
ACC director Earl Kingsbury, the chairperson-elect of the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce, said 30,000 people visit the building during the tournament.
“That’s a huge impact on the city, on the building, on the staff and on business in general for the central Maine area,” he said.
The story is similar in Bangor, where fans from the St. John Valley to easternmost Washington County converge on their basketball journey.
“It’s one of our biggest events just from an overall operational standpoint while it’s underway, as well as for attendance numbers and ticket revenue that’s generated,” Cross Insurance Center general manager Tony Vail said.
His facility welcomed nearly 40,000 people to the 2020 tournament.
“It’s one of the largest events that we do here and that comes through this area in general. It’s massive,” Vail said.
Kingsbury said the Augusta Civic Center hires 109 people for tourney games, and the Cross Insurance Center also attracts a pool of some 200 part-time workers who this year will be sidelined.
The arenas also outsource various services for the tournament and those workers won’t be needed in 2021, either.
“The food companies, the beverage companies that we buy all the products from, they’re going to take a hit on it,” Kingsbury said.
Kingsbury estimated that between rent, meals and concessions the Augusta Civic Center stands to lose approximately $130,000 in revenues from the tournament’s absence this year.
Andy Downs, director of Portland’s Public Assembly Facilities Division, said the Portland Exposition Building — which does not host regional or state championship games, will lose approximately $50,000 in gross revenue normally generated from facility rental, food and beverage, and parking during the tournament.
And Vail estimated that the Cross Insurance Center will miss out on “north of $100,000 in [net] revenue” due to this year’s tournament games in Bangor being canceled.
“It obviously has a huge economic impact on the entire community, not just the Cross Insurance Center,” he said. “Those 40,000 people who come to the tournament spend a lot of their hard-earned money in the restaurants, hotels and all the surrounding businesses.
“It’s the communities that are taking the hits business-wise, and there’s also a huge family enjoyment aspect to this that the entire community misses out on.”
The MPA, the state’s sanctioning body for interscholastic athletics, is feeling the loss, too.
The organization sponsors state championships in basketball and some 20 other activities, but since the pandemic arrived the MPA has crowned champions only in golf.
Sports were canceled outright last spring and reduced significantly in the fall. Nearly all competition requiring statewide travel has been avoided to help limit the spread of the coronavirus.
The 2021 basketball season, scheduled to begin Monday, will be limited to a 12-game regular season that may be followed after Feb. 27 by regionalized postseason events.
But nothing is guaranteed during the pandemic.
“We know during the winter that high school basketball and other high school events are often community events,” said Mike Burnham, executive director of the MPA interscholastic division. “They follow these kids, they follow their teams, and the culminating end-of-the season activity is that weeklong tournament.
“I think it has a tremendous impact on our state as a whole.”
The basketball tournament, while expensive to operate, is a leading revenue producer for the MPA along with its competitive cheering, football and ice hockey championships.
The MPA sold 95,295 tickets to the 2020 tournament, including 48,918 for students in grade 12 and below and seniors 65 and older, along with 46,377 for adults. Tickets cost $10 each for adults and $5 each for students and seniors.
That adds up to more than $700,000, while Burnham said total expenses for the 2020 tourney totaled $419,488, including the hiring of 92 part-time workers.
“The revenue generated from that tournament allows us to offer so many activities that don’t operate with a profit or aren’t financially able to cover their costs,” Burnham said.
Unlike other New England states, the MPA completed all of its 2020 winter sports activities, with the exception of unified basketball, before the pandemic arrived.
Since then, opportunities to generate revenue from championship events have evaporated.
“Having gotten through the winter, along with a [Paycheck Protection Program] loan that we received, allowed us to get through the spring,” Burnham said.
The MPA has eliminated all travel, relying exclusively on virtual meetings to save money.
“And we’re not just focused on the winter. With the unknown of possibly a second spring season being lost, that’s part of our conversation as well,” Burnham said.
The MPA has a reserve account that helped the organization get through the fall, but with the winter revenue streams from basketball, cheering and ice hockey unavailable, officials are exploring other ways to improve the balance sheet while maintaining support for student-athlete activities.
“We continue to work hard to find opportunities for kids to be part of a team and to connect with their coaches and represent their schools and communities,” Burnham said.
Taking into consideration the absence of the basketball tournament, just about everyone from athletes and coaches to arena personnel and area businesses will lose out this year.