Editorial: Weir throws up a brick with suites-to-offices plan

University of New Mexico men’s basketball coach Paul Weir has had some success in his first year, taking over a reeling program, installing some hard-nosed toughness and making a strong run in last year’s Mountain West Conference tournament. More wins, hopefully, will follow, generating more attendance, fan enthusiasm and revenue.

But he jacked up an air ball this week when he raised the idea of turning 16 of the 40 suites at Dreamstyle Arena/the Pit into office space for men’s and women’s hoops coaches.

Yes, these are the same suites that UNM said would be rented out and generate significant revenue to help pay for 2009’s $60 million upgrade of the legendary Pit, an upgrade that has helped keep the department’s books in the cherry red.

And yes, Weir is correct the suites upgrade has turned out to be something of a financial bust, with only about half of the 40 rented out each season.

In pitching his office space idea to the regents’ Finance and Facilities Committee, Weir acknowledged the sad state of athletics’ finances by saying he had a “complete respect, understanding of the fiscal austerity and what things are going on in our community.” He also said part of the cost could be covered with $150,000 in capital outlay money already set aside for facilities improvements in the Pit. He asked regents for a green light to start asking donors for the rest.

Apparently Weir missed the buzzer that resonated after regents cut sports – including men’s soccer – to reduce athletics’ red ink. As those teams and fans are coming to grips with their fate or fighting for reinstatement, Weir wants to look at UNM’s converting premium suites that were supposed to generate revenue into office space for his staff. Why? Because the current offices in the Rudy Davalos building are too small and noisy to be ideal for productive work. This in the same week the state attorney general is blasting the university in general and athletics in particular for lack of transparency and fiscal responsibility. Misplaced priorities, anyone?

After Journal reporter Geoff Grammer reported on the idea, and Weir obviously faced considerable pushback, Weir acknowledged in a follow-up story that as coaches “we get blinders on sometimes. We just do what we can for the best interest of our program” and that if opposition “becomes paramount” he would admit this wasn’t a great idea. Here is hoping he comes to that conclusion sooner rather than later.

Instead of throwing in the towel on the suites, UNM’s priority ought to be to fill them with paying customers. Go back to the drawing board and re-examine price and marketing strategies; look at everything from innovative sharing plans to raffles in order to get money in the coffers and fans in the seats.

If UNM still can’t sell them all, it should look at using them to support community groups. It would be far better to donate a suite to the Boys Club, for example, to use it for kids who could only dream of sitting in a suite at a Lobo game, than to convert it to offices for coaching staff that makes more in a season than the kids’ households do in a lifetime.

Sadly, the unintended message here is fans and regents really shouldn’t expect a return to the glory days of Lobo basketball when it was the hottest ticket in town. And that’s the wrong message.

The Lobos have a new coach who has already made a start in re-energizing the fan base.

Now is the time for UNM to get creative and find a way to fulfill the promises it made when it pushed that $60 million upgrade. It’s supposed to be Dreamstyle Arena, after all, not Office Space of My Dreams.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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