You could almost hear the roar of the crowd at Isotopes Park on Friday, despite Albuquerque’s Triple-A franchise being mired in a historic road trip of 16 days between home games.
News out of Santa Fe confirmed the state’s vaccination rate reaching the target of 60%, meaning the state will reopen on July 1 — lifting all business-related COVID-19 restrictions, including such things as reduced stadium capacity limits for sporting events around New Mexico.
OK, so Friday’s Department of Health data actually showed just 59.4% of eligible New Mexicans had already received their vaccinations, but nobody around the state seemed to mind the generous rounding up to help the state return to normalcy.
For sports in the state that rely on fans in the stands for survival, Friday was very much a day of celebration knowing ticket and concession revenues can again be counted on.
“It was almost 12 months ago to the day that we announced the 2020 season was being cancelled,” Isotopes Vice President and General Manager John Traub told the Journal on Friday in a text exchange. “And now here we are getting ready to open back up to 100% capacity on our biggest weekend of the season. July 3 (Mariachis night) and July 4 (often the team’s most attended game with one of the state’s largest fireworks shows) are going to be two amazing homecoming games for the entire community!”
The news was also welcome for fledgling New Mexico United, the third-year franchise that led the United Soccer League Championship division in average home attendance in its debut season in 2019, had to play its entire second season out of state and has completed a quarter of its home schedule this season with limited capacity restrictions in place at Isotopes Park, which the team sub-leases from the Albuquerque Isotopes.
“It’s exciting news,” said NMU spokesperson David Carl. “You remember some of those games in 2019. Those types of crowds are hard to find anywhere in the country, so getting back to that is exciting.”
Carl said because tickets already went on sale in a limited-capacity format for the team’s July 9 and 12 home matches, they will still operate as though capacity is at 75%. The first match at 100% capacity for United will be July 24 against rival El Paso Locomotive FC.
Traub said the Isotopes will start making available for purchase all seats immediately on July 1 when the team starts a six-game homestand with the El Paso Chihuahuas.
So far, tickets for Isotopes and United games have been sold in a pod system to space out fans in a way that accommodated the limited capacity and still allowed for social distancing. Allowing just 5,000 fans in a stadium but packing them all into one section, after all, would defeat the purpose.
Across the street at the University of New Mexico, Friday’s news means such pod-formatting for ticket sales won’t be necessary.
For Lobo football, season tickets had been sold as though there would be no capacity restrictions, athletic director Eddie Nuñez said, but with the understanding that some movement might have to take place if limited capacity limits forced fans to spread out.
While counting on sellouts for Lobo football is a bit ambitious, UNM still counts on an uptick in sales for this fall as popular head coach Danny Gonzales and defensive coordinator Rocky Long are still essentially making their University Stadium return after the team played all of 2020 out of state.
As for Lobo basketball and its return to the Pit under new coach Richard Pitino, UNM had been taking deposits on season ticket purchases, but delayed putting on sale specific seats until capacity restrictions were known.
Nuñez said Friday those will go on sale July 12.
For high school sports, the 2020-21 school year’s sports will all wrap up next week, so attendance issues for this year are unaffected. Friday’s news, though, ensures the 2021-22 sports calendar won’t have any state-imposed restrictions on fan attendance.