This season marks the 50th anniversary of the Pit – long considered by sports fans a crown jewel venue in the high desert of New Mexico.
If you didn’t already know that, or haven’t yet felt as though you’ve received the informal invitation to the season-long party celebrating the arena once rated by Sports Illustrated as the 13th-ranked sports venue of the 20th century, you aren’t alone.
Lobos basketball coach Craig Neal was asked Wednesday about another season of dwindling season-ticket numbers and a general lack of buzz around the program heading into the season. He admitted he doesn’t yet know for sure what the UNM marketing department and administrators have in store for what seems like a golden opportunity to create some excitement among fans.
“I’ve not heard one thing,” Neal said when asked what UNM planned to do to promote the special Nov. 30 anniversary game vs. Abilene Christian, the same school the Lobos faced in the first regular-season game played in the Pit on Dec. 1, 1966. A scheduling conflict prevented the game from being played on the exact anniversary date.
“It’s a unique situation here because we have a building here that’s iconic. Sports Illustrated did the thing with all the venues in the world and we’re 13th. If you go around nationally, and I say I’m the coach of New Mexico, almost everybody nationally knows the Pit. So I think it’s a little unique that we haven’t really done a lot towards that.”
Attempts by the Journal to get comment from UNM on its marketing efforts for men’s basketball have been unsuccessful, but deputy athletic director Brad Hutchins did confirm the university sold 8,805 season tickets this season (see chart at bottom of page). That’s the lowest number in at least the past 12 seasons, down 12.2 percent from last season’s mark (10,029) and 24.3 percent from the program’s record high (11,617) set in Neal’s first season of 2013-14.
UNM also has sold just 28 of the 40 corporate suite boxes in the Pit for this season, Hutchins said, adding, however, that those are an “ongoing process” and suites can be rented out for single games.
While attendance is down and general viewing habits for many sporting events have declined in recent years in general, UNM has still led the Mountain West in attendance for men’s basketball most seasons and has been ranked in the top 25 for attendance in each of the seasons the Pit has been open.
Just three seasons ago, the UNM men’s basketball program set an all-time high for ticket revenue generated. And even with last year’s struggles, the team still posted a overall profit of $3.1 million in an athletic department that posted a $1.54 million shortfall. UNM athletics is drained significantly by the high cost of running a football program that again is projected to fall significantly short of ticket sales projections.
In September, athletic director Paul Krebs acknowledged to the UNM Board of Regents Finance and Facilities Committee that the department has probably hit its max on what it can draw financially from the community.
“We’re driving a lot of revenue from this community as the state economy has suffered and is suffering,” Krebs said. “We feel the implications of that. Donations, ticket sales, etc., are impacted when the economy struggles. … I just don’t think the model can sustain itself. It’s unrealistic for us to continue to expect to generate more and more revenues from the fan base in this community based on the economy.”
Still, UNM increased men’s basketball ticket prices this past offseason, prices that are significantly higher than all of their Mountain West Conference basketball peers. The cheapest adult single-game ticket for a UNM basketball game is $22, and the 10 other MWC members’ cheapest in-the-door tickets range from $9-13 (see chart at bottom of page). Those don’t include service fees, parking fees or concession prices.
Asked about that Wednesday, Neal said pricing is not something he has control over, but also cited U.S. Census Bureau statistics that show 51 percent of the state’s population was born in New Mexico.
“I’m the basketball coach so I try not to get that involved,” he said. “… I think with that (51 percent) that was born and raised here that are Lobo fans for the last 50 years, those have been the ones that have supported us. Those have been the ones that made us top 25 in attendance over 50 years.”
As for a general lack of buzz surrounding the program heading into this season, he acknowledged the Lobos must win more games. But when pressed if he felt there was enough promotion going on to get fans excited, he had a different answer.
“I’d rather not comment on that,” said Neal initially, before elaborating. “I think there’s buzz for our team. I think our team is exciting. I’m just trying to take care of what I can take care of. I appreciate the fans that come out. I appreciate the fans that were at the first two games.
“All I can say is I’ve got a really good team. I’ve got a team that does it the right way. I’ve got a team that goes to class. I’ve got a team that has broke every academic standard that we’ve ever had in the basketball program. They don’t get in trouble. I have no issues with my players. They’re good kids and … they came here for a reason.
“All I’m asking is come support them.”