The trend started long before Paul Weir took over the Lobo men’s basketball program 11 months ago.
But it’s his now.
Both Weir and first-year University of New Mexico athletic director Eddie Nuñez vow to continue working to earn back the devotion of fans who in recent years have turned away from the program. Meanwhile, this season will mark a new all-time low in average home attendance in the Pit (now known as Dreamstyle Arena).
With one home game left – UNM (16-14, 11-6) holds its senior night against Fresno State (21-9, 11-6) on Saturday – the Lobos are averaging 10,747 fans per home game. That’s 35th nationally and down from last season’s previous Pit low set in the final season under former coach Craig Neal of 11,769. This will also be the second consecutive season UNM won’t rank in the top 25 nationally in average home attendance after having done so in each of its first 50 seasons of the fabled home arena’s existence.
“I know I wasn’t necessarily this known commodity and neither were the players, but hopefully we’ll be able to build some loyalty with the fans,” said Weir, who from his opening press conference last April made it a point to say dozens of times he wants to earn back the support of fans who left in recent years and build a program that reflects the hard work of the community in which it plays.
“I would say we’ve made a good first step,” said Weir. “I don’t think we’ve sold everyone, but we’re giving it everything we’ve got and that’s all we can do.”
Despite the top two draws at the gate for the season being in the non-conference – vs. Arizona and vs. New Mexico State – the Lobos are averaging more fans in the past eight Mountain West Conference games than in the eight home games prior to league play.
A sellout of 15,411 on Saturday, or a near one, could get the program back over an 11,000 average for the season, but the Lobos can move up to no higher than 33rd in the national rankings.
Nuñez on Thursday actually said he’s more optimistic and excited about attendance now than when he arrived at UNM, because he sees a connection forming again between the fan base and this year’s team.
“It’s exciting to see where we’re going and what’s happening, to be honest,” Nuñez said. “As you can see, people starting to see the style of play and the hard work this team puts in. It looks like it’s starting to come around. So now it’s on us to carry that over as the program continue to grow under Paul moving forward.
“Ultimately, we have to do what we can to make the experience in the Pit better than it has been. From making it more than just about a hot dog and popcorn to doing more with video boards and promotions – the whole experience from the time they park their car to the time they go home, we have to work on making it better.”
Weir hopes he and his team have started to do so on the court, carrying a four-game win streak into Saturday’s regular season finale. The Lobos were picked to finish ninth in a preseason poll, but have a shot at finishing in a second-place tie in the league standings and going 8-1 at home in conference games.
As a sign of his gratitude, Weir has regularly walked over to the UNM student section to thank them and the band after each game. Not only that, but after Saturday’s win over UNLV, he spent several minutes in the stands shaking hands and posing for pictures with fans before doing postgame media interviews.
“I don’t know the numbers and where they’ll end up, but I would say the energy and the volume in the building has been terrific, particularly here in conference play,” Weir said. “Hopefully that’s something we’ll be able to build into something long term.”
RANKINGS: UNM will finish the season ranked second in the Mountain West in home attendance behind San Diego State, which at 11,268 heading into Saturday’s game against conference champion Nevada ranks 32nd nationally.
In Las Cruces, New Mexico State will rank second in the WAC (behind Grand Canyon University) and 100th nationally in average home attendance at 5,294 per game.
PROMOTIONS: UNM on Thursday posted on social media a picture to promote Saturday’s senior night that included a promotion of $10 bench seats for adults, $5 children tickets and $50 club-level tickets. Club- and suite-level seating sales have lagged this season.
UNM is also selling $5 red bowls with a UNM logo on it touted as souvenir popcorn buckets.