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Pit cashes in on pizza deal

There is no question the Pit is an iconic slice of history for thousands of sports fans in and around Albuquerque.

And now, a local startup pizza chain is hopeful that forking over the largest cash donation in University of New Mexico athletics department history will help give it a piece of the pie as well.

UNM and WisePies Pizza & Salad announced Monday that the company would give UNM a $5 million cash gift paid out over the next 10 years in exchange for naming rights for University Arena, known by almost everyone as the Pit.

“I think it was about us wanting to make sure people could recognize the commitment we’re making not only to our local community, but also to future franchises that are coming aboard,” Season Elliott, a WisePies spokeswoman, told the Journal. “We have such a rapid growth plan over the next few years, we had to make a bold move.”

The Albuquerque-based company is owned by New Mexico residents Steve Chavez and Michael Baird.

It is the largest cash gift UNM athletics has ever received and sixth-largest cash gift ever received by the university.

According to the “Gift Agreement” between WisePies and UNM Foundation, the company paid UNM $100,000 on Monday, will pay another $100,000 on Dec. 31, 2015, and then make annual payments of $600,000 on Dec. 31 each year from 2016 through 2023.

If the company fails to make a payment, the naming rights will be removed and WisePies must reimburse the university for cost of the removal.

WisePies Pizza, which dubs itself “A family pizza joint,” will have its company logo – its name with a fedora-wearing mafioso-type peeking from behind – attached to internal and external signage at the Pit. In addition, two large logos have been added to Bob King Court and UNM will include the name and logos on all media packets and other publications referring to the arena.

Still the Pit

What Monday’s announcement won’t do in the eyes of many fans is change what people actually call the arena.

“We know our fans are going to call it the Pit,” UNM athletic director Paul Krebs said. “So many grew up with that. But for the things we can control and all of our recognition, all of our exposure, it is and will be WisePies Arena.”

University Arena is now WisePies Arena after the local pizza chain worked out a deal with UNM

University Arena is now WisePies Arena after the local pizza chain worked out a deal with UNM. Athletic director Paul Krebs says, “We know our fans are going to call it the Pit.”

In fact, on most signage, the phrase, “AKA The Pit,” follows the words “WisePies Arena” – a tip of the fedora to the realization that most people will still call it the Pit as well as a play on the company’s branding of a mafia type feel using aliases along with actual names.

“I don’t think it’s a major concern of ours,” Elliott said. “As you can see on the floor, we still have ‘THE PIT’ on both ends. And in the logo, ‘WisePies Arena AKA The Pit,’ was a way that we could bring in the new name with a long-standing tradition.

“We want to honor the fans. They are certainly going to be some traditionalists out there who won’t be happy with naming WisePies Arena, but I think we’re going to be welcomed. I think this is going to be embraced.”

The money will be earmarked toward paying down the $60 million debt service on the Pit’s 2009 renovation, which will greatly help the finances for an athletic department that has a poor recent history of balancing its budget.

Data submitted to the Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act shows UNM athletics has operated under a budget deficit in each of the past six fiscal years, with shortfalls ranging between $538 in 2009-10 to $1,037,206 in 2011-12.

UNM maintains its “actual operating budget” reflects a budget deficit in five of those six years.

Balancing the budget

Nevertheless, securing a naming rights deal has been priority No. 1 for some time.

“It’s been a huge priority for us,” Krebs said. “It’s something that’s consumed a lot of my time. Our budget has been challenged in large part because we have not been able to land the naming gift we thought we were going to be able to get. … This gift, the timing of it was huge. It allows us to meet our debt service obligations and will hopefully free up some resources that we can reinvest back into our programs.”

UNM President Robert Frank told the Journal in June he expects the athletics department to balance its budget, but added athletics faces various issues in balancing its budget some other departments do not. One major one, he acknowledged on Monday, was whether the entire debt service for the Pit should be only the responsibility of the athletics department.

He also said he understands how difficult it has been in recent years to secure such a deal due to the economy.

“The naming environment has just turned soft on us,” Frank said. “Particularly Albuquerque, as Paul (Krebs) mentioned, just doesn’t have that many home businesses.”

On Monday, Krebs said it couldn’t have worked out better to land such a large deal from a locally owned company.

“It’s very fortuitous that it worked out this way,” Krebs said. “We got somebody local who wants to support the university who believes in Albuquerque, who believes in New Mexico.”

Among the agreements details, WisePies will give away more than $200,000 in free pizza certificates over the next two home games – Wednesday’s men’s game against New Mexico State and the Dec. 14 women’s game against UTEP – in addition to other giveaways.

But don’t expect the actual WisePies pizzas to be served anywhere in the Pit anytime soon.

“We would like to look at opportunities in the future and I think that’s an opportunity that will be discussed in the future,” Elliott said.

The WisePies deal does not affect any existing deals UNM has with other food vendors, including Jack in the Box or Papa Johns, which offers discounts after certain Lobo achievements.

After 10 years, WisePies will have the right of first refusal for future naming rights of the arena.