Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
It’s not just noise.
While national trends indicate many college athletics programs are struggling to get fans to the games, there is evidence that the growing frustration with the University of New Mexico men’s basketball program might be a financial drain the university can’t ignore.
The Lobo men made $4 million in ticket revenue at the Pit this past season for the seventh consecutive year, but the program still missed budgeted revenue projections by $671,572, according to numbers released to the Journal. And those scaled-back projections were significantly lowered from last season, when the team had a nearly $400,000 shortfall in ticket revenue.
“We are very cognizant of the current economic landscape,” said UNM deputy athletic director Brad Hutchins. “Hard dollars (considered state and university support) are decreasing, and we have seen a reduction in soft dollars (considered ticket sales and donations). … We need to stabilize men’s basketball revenue and grow both football and women’s basketball.”
Football (by $544,052) and women’s basketball (by $104,211) continued their recent trend of missing ticket revenue projections this past season, too. In the case of football, “inconvenience” fees for playing late games on ESPN or ESPN2 added $1.5 million to the budget, which more than made up for that shortfall at the gate, though that money does not specifically go into a “ticket revenue” line item on the budget. One of those three games moved to a late kickoff was at home.
Football ticket revenue dropped this past season to $1.5 million.
Women’s basketball dropped to $295,789, the 10th consecutive season revenue has dropped.
Upset with UNM basketball
Still, it’s no secret, UNM is dependent on its men’s basketball program to provide for all athletics, which makes the current trend so troubling for a department that posted a $1.54 million deficit last fiscal year.
Men’s basketball brought in $4,028,428 this past season, although it projected $4.7 million. It was the second consecutive drop in revenue after a program-record $4.8 million in the 2014-15 season. UNM’s average home attendance this past season was 11,769, 28th in the nation and the first time it was outside the Top 25 since the Pit opened 51 seasons ago.
After a 17-14 men’s basketball season that included a loss in its lone Mountain West tournament game and no further postseason, fans have made it clear they want better. More specifically, many have said they want a change in the head coaching position from Craig Neal, who has held the job the past four seasons.
Recent announcements by four scholarship players that they are leaving UNM has added to the criticism of Neal.
And if expressing their displeasure in emails, letters and social media isn’t enough, some fans are going public with their decision to drop their season tickets. UNM sold just 8,805 season tickets for men’s basketball last year, the lowest total in at least 12 seasons.
“We’ve had two basketball season tickets in our family since 1985. This will be the first year we will not renew them,” said Joey Timmons, a 30-year-old Lobos fan in Albuquerque. He went to games with his grandfather and describes seeing Lobo Royce Olney hit a game-winner against Utah as one of his favorite childhood memories.
“Over the last two years that passion has slowly faded,” he said, referring to why he wants Neal out as head coach. “Lobo basketball has not been the same … Loss after loss in the Pit. The worst part is the lack of accountability from (athletic director Paul Krebs).”
What’s equally concerning for UNM, however, is that Timmons said his family is now considering dropping their 10 football season tickets because “apparently emails and letters have no (effect). Money talks.”
Not football vs. basketball
Neal’s buyout is $1 million and, while never mentioned specifically by Krebs in his statements about his intent to retain Neal as coach, it is clearly one of the major factors.
Not only is the entire state facing cuts, but UNM has been hit particularly hard recently. Athletics, in particular, has posted budget shortfalls in seven of the past nine years, though none as significant as last year’s $1.54 million deficit. And this past fall at a Board of Regents finance and facilities committee meeting, even before the basketball season began, Krebs warned more shortfalls could be coming.
At that October meeting, UNM Executive Vice President for Administration, COO & CFO David Harris said backing athletics in the future simply wouldn’t be an option.
“Our top priority here is to benefit academic programs, not instructional,” Harris said. “So we don’t really have the capability to backstop athletics in ways that we have in the past.”
As for the idea that some fans might be willing to extend their men’s basketball protest over to the football program, which faces its own significant financial concerns after years of running in the red, UNM hopes fans won’t take that route.
“Pitting football vs. basketball is counterproductive, we are all Lobos,” Hutchins said in an email to the Journal. “The fact of the matter is that we need all three programs to be successful and thrive from a competitive standpoint and in generating soft dollars annually. We need to actually increase funding for football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball to give them a level playing field with peers, which is a challenge in the current landscape.”