LAS CRUCES – New Mexico State University wants to move its athletics department from a financial loss to a winning streak. It’s counting on football and men’s basketball to get it there.
A task force of department officials, local business people and boosters recently concluded that those two sports “offer the most upside in terms of potential ‘untapped’ revenue.”
A local focus. “Touchy-feely” marketing. Plenty of face time. That’s the approach that President Garrey Carruthers and his team say will turn around NMSU athletics’ financial performance, a goal that is a centerpiece of his 3-month-old administration.
The plan includes promoting the Aggies in southern New Mexico communities outside Las Cruces, including Deming, Carlsbad, Alamogordo and Silver City. And luring students with prizes, a move that drew national media criticism but has delivered greater attendance.
NMSU’s men’s basketball program is in the black, having brought in close to half a million dollars last year that helped offset losses elsewhere. But football – where historically poor game attendance has had the university teetering on the edge of losing is Division 1 status, and with it, its eligibility for a bowl game – is a tougher sell.
“We’re not Alabama,” said Mark Santini, owner of Denver-based Dormie Marketing, which sells NMSU athletics sponsorships, referring to the No. 1 college football team. “We’re not selling a national championship. We are what we are.”
But, he adds: “I think there is a strong sense of community around the Aggies. We all want to see Coach (Doug Martin) be successful. We just got our first win of the season last week. We see where Martin is going, and we’re getting excited about that.”
Carruthers has said he wants to raise ticket sales, boost donations and reverse a decline in crucial business sponsorships.
Athletics department sponsorships have dropped 27 percent over four years, to $952,000 in fiscal year 2012-13 from $1.3 million in 2008-09, according to NMSU spokesman Justin Bannister.
Deputy athletic director David McCollum – recently hired in large part for his business acumen and standing in the community as the former owner of the Las Cruces Bulletin and other media – says he believes there is pent-up demand from people who want to be Aggies supporters. They just need to be courted.
“A big part of the decision for me to join the team is that I really believe in the face-to-face relationships, and I believe this is a community that demands that,” McCollum said. “We’ll include Albuquerque. I think there is a terrific opportunity there, as well.”
The athletics department lost $3.7 million last fiscal year – not uncommon for a midmajor program. An economy battered by recession, corporate consolidations and the shift of marketing decision-making to headquarters outside Las Cruces all present challenges, McCollum said.
The athletics department brought in nearly $13.1 million in revenue from, among other things, ticket sales, state appropriations and student fees. Expenses totaled $16.8 million, hence the shortfall.
“Winning is the magic elixir, is what you always hear,” said Brad Beasley, partner in accounting firm Beasley, Mitchell & Co. and a member of the task force. “If NMSU can ever become competitive, that will solve a lot of the problems.”
Beasley points to other midmajors that raised the performance of their football teams by increasing funding: Utah State, Boise State and Fresno State are examples to follow, he said.
“In a big city, there are large organizations that have deep pockets that … are more than willing to (sponsor),” he said “Here in Las Cruces you’ve got to really, really work for it. You can’t just send out a mass email. There are a lot of businesses that could be involved if there was some touchy-feely marketing.”
Average football game attendance is up so far this season, to 15,956 from last season’s 9,639, McCollum said. That is a major difference from numbers NMSU reported in its official statistics from last year, which indicated it was averaging 14,247 over six home dates.
McCollum, however, said it is the 9,639 figure that reflects the NCAA’s required formula for attendance count. The university needs to average 15,000 to meet NCAA requirements for maintaining its Football Bowl Subdivision status.
McCollum attributes the gain to the excitement created by a new coach and a “good schedule” that has included Rice and Minnesota, as well as advertising outside Las Cruces that has brought in an additional 300 to 700 spectators per game this season.
Aggies football, however, is now 1-8 after Saturday’s loss to Louisiana in Lafayette, La. The team has two home games to go, against Boston College this coming Saturday and Idaho on Nov. 30.
The bump in attendance may not last, however.
“We’re really going to have to prove ourselves next year,” McCollum said.