IMHO: Shrine Game Isn’t Out of the Woods Yet

Valley News Sports Editor
Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Meteorologists won’t declare a heat wave until three days of 90-degree temperatures have passed. Just because stocks went down today doesn’t mean it’s a bear market.

In the same vein, don’t read too much into the fact that Vermont not only ended a 15-game Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl losing streak with Saturday’s win over New Hampshire, it did so in record fashion.

This isn’t a rebooting of the computer; it’s more of a software update.

Because of the setting (Castleton University), the crowd (very pro-Vermont) and the final score (50-2), there’s a temptation to think all is back in order with this cherished, 63-year-old football commodity. The fans joining the Green Mountain boys’ victory celebration afterward may have thought all was fine and dandy, but those having just participated in the evening were a little more circumspect.

“I said (to the team), ‘If you really want to do something for those kids, the best thing we can do is win a football game to prove that the Shrine game can be competitive between Vermont and New Hampshire,’ ” Vermont and Fair Haven Union coach Brian Grady said afterward. “ ‘If it’s a (New Hampshire) blowout, then people start to take a little less interest. But if we get a win, it makes the game viable again.’ ”

At a minimum, it’s a start.

New Hampshire’s Shrine dominance the past two decades grew with the bottom half of the state. Roughly double in population size, the Granite State is considered about twice as deep with high school football talent as its Twin State rival, and that has shown on the field.

Also, the arrival of the CHaD East-West Game in 2012 siphoned players away from New Hampshire’s biggest schools who might have otherwise joined in the Shrine contest and money away from an equally worthy cause. Shrine organizers require players to choose between the games; the 80 Granite State athletes who committed to CHaD in June were 80 fewer from which to build a Shrine roster for Castleton on Saturday.

Even a talent pool twice the size of Vermont’s is bound to be affected. New Hampshire needed a late rally to win last summer’s game at Castleton, and it was never in Saturday’s contest. The Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl can’t afford to leave fans wondering if they’re watching a watered-down product.

It’s only two years. It isn’t a trend. But it’s getting close.

Even though East-West can’t touch the numbers of fannies in the stands a Shrine game produces, the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth’s fundraising machine — and the corporate sponsors it draws — outstrips its charity football counterpart. Moving to Castleton while its traditional Dartmouth College host repaired Memorial Field helped the Shrine raise more than $18,000 for its hospitals in 2015, game general chairman Kristi Morris told the Valley News last week, but that pales in comparison to the six-figure sum CHaD amassed back in June.

What’s also concerning is the lack of media attention the Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl generates in the most populous portion of the Twin States.

Newspapers in Concord, Nashua and Manchester didn’t send writers to Castleton on Saturday. (Yours truly staffed for the first two.) A Seacoast publication wrote preview stories, but a recap of Saturday’s game wasn’t anywhere to be found on its website on Tuesday. On-hand television reporting appeared limited to Burlington stations.

There’s no denying that the Castleton move has been good for the Shrine’s bottom line; raising the most money possible to support the work of Shriners’ hospitals in the Northeast is the whole reason for staging the game. But if southern New Hampshire media doesn’t consider it worth the time and effort to come to Vermont, how can the Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl expect to retain its relevance?

Maintaining the Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl’s best interests remains a juggling act. Castleton opens the potential for better fundraising, but returning the game to Dartmouth is necessary to retain credibility with southern New Hampshire media. An either-or approach to CHaD game vs. Shrine game participation may draw a more committed football player, but it may also be contributing to a weakening of the on-field product.

As lopsided as the final score was, Saturday was a welcome change in Vermont’s Shrine fortunes. Players on the victorious side were less interested in ending a streak dating back to their diaper days than in starting a new run of success.

They did. That’s one. It’s a start, not a trend.

There remain things Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl organizers must monitor to be sure they don’t become trends, either.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.