Tim Williams said he could tell at tip-off that Saturday’s home game against Wyoming had a different vibe.
Lobos coach Craig Neal said “you could feel it when you’re coming down the ramp.”
With an announced crowd of 12,501 in the Pit, the second largest of this season, the renewed energy was evident during the Lobos’ win over Wyoming.
But it’s all relative.
It was only three years ago that the University of New Mexico, in Neal’s first season as head coach, set a record for men’s basketball ticket revenue with an average home attendance of 15,212, filling the Pit to 98.7 percent capacity.
Through 10 home games this season, the average attendance in the Pit is 11,600 and the university is trying hard to keep the momentum from Saturday’s uptick moving forward.
While UNM’s attendance this season is one most Division I programs would love, it has two rather alarming implications for UNM.
First, the athletics department relies heavily on basketball to turn a huge profit to fund all sports. According to UNM, despite missing ticket projections when averaging 13,030 last season, men’s basketball still turned a $3 million profit.
But, aside from the yet-to-be-determined financial implications, there is a very symbolic benchmark in jeopardy, too. UNM’s average attendance ranks No. 27 in the country, according to the NCAA. That means the program’s oft-referenced streak of ranking in the Top 25 in attendance for the past 50 years could end in the 51st season of the Pit’s existence.
“The attendance streak is a source of pride for our program and our fans,” said UNM athletic director Paul Krebs. “The streak is a reflection of producing consistently good teams and a great fan base that has been incredibly supportive over the years. With several of our traditional league rivals yet to play at WisePies Arena this year, we still have a chance to reach the top 25. Our crowds and our home court environment are special and unique in the sport of college basketball.”
Utah sits at No. 25 in attendance at 12,138. If that number holds, the Lobos would have to average 13,215 over their final five home games to match. UNM’s only game to surpass 13,000 was Nov. 18 against New Mexico State (13,892).
UNM’s remaining home games are against Utah State, San Jose State, Boise State, Colorado State and San Diego State.
There are many possible reasons for the drop in attendance, including economy and team performance. UNM says it will evaluate after the season pricing and the increased number of late start times that are dictated by the Mountain West Conference’s television package.
Drew W. Ingraham, UNM’s associate AD for marketing & fan engagement, has been spearheading the push to find new ways to sell tickets. Most visible on that front have been a series of social-media driven “flash sales” of discounted tickets advertised on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter available for short periods of time (i.e. 24 or 48 hours).
One such sale for the Dec. 7 UTEP game generated 438 new ticket sales. Another for the Dec. 28 Fresno State game, a “4-Point Play” package with four tickets, four hot dogs and four sodas for $60, resulted in 672 new tickets sold.
“The flash sales have been something that is entirely new and are cost-effective given that they are promoted via social media,” Ingraham said. “In addition it allows us a new medium to communicate with our fan base.”
He added those sales will continue, as will several other promotions, including $1 hot dogs for Tuesday night’s Utah State game. So, too, will specials for season ticket holders.
“We are constantly exploring new ways to generate revenue, sale tickets and expand our fan base,” Ingraham said, adding he has been sharing ideas and best practices with other college and professional teams.
As for Neal he says the team will do its part and hopes the fans know what part they play.
“That’s a big factor how we get players,” Neal said. “… (Fans are) a big part of that and they’re always going to be a big part of that and they need to understand that. We need them. We’ve had a couple tough times, but we’re going to give them everything we’ve got and we’re proud to represent them. That’s why those guys wear New Mexico on their jersey.”