Nov. 19 – As you settle down for your morning coffee, there’s a good chance the University of New Mexico women’s cross-country team has been added to its growing list of national titles. The Lobos are entering the NCAA Championships Saturday morning in Stillwater, Oklahoma as the second-place team in the country. Today it could be three national championships since 2015.
It’s just odd that the cross-country program emerged on the national stage the same year attendance at men’s basketball games at The Pit began a steady and sustained decline. Since the last home game of the 2014-15 college basketball season, a 52-49 win over Wyoming on March 9, 2015, the state’s most iconic athletic building has not seen a sell-out crowd.
If you score at home, that’s 111 straight games – shows included – since the arena, whose reputation was built by ambitiously large crowds for most of its first half-century, sold out.
For those fans who’ve been around long enough to remember what it was like to regularly have 18,000+ viewers in The Pit’s old configuration, it’s almost hard to fathom. It still takes some getting used to seeing how many seats are empty.
This is the new normal for UNM. Visitor numbers are down almost everywhere, but The Pit and the football stadium across the street are magnifying glasses for a nationwide problem. The abundance of viewing options makes it easier to stay at home. Soaring ticket prices are undoubtedly a factor in a state as economically troubled as New Mexico.
Add in the pandemic and the Lobos’ lack of success for the better part of a decade, and it starts to make sense. It’s no coincidence that the eight-year dry spell for late-season berths is falling in tandem with declining visitor numbers. The Lobos have not won at least 20 games since the 2013–14 season and have since posted an overall loss record.
Their 3-0 start to a rivalry game has the potential to move things in the right direction. Fans are reluctant to dip their toes in the water, but after seeing the Lobos-hammer SMU on the streets earlier this week with a lineup that includes two of the best guards in the country and two prolific power forwards, the potential for something is there Something special is definitely there.
Saturday’s game against New Mexico State could finally crack the sell-out slip.
As of Thursday, the school had sold 12,000 places. As of Friday. This number slowly increased. If the game tips, it could become the first home game to draw at least 14,000 in three years.
Blaming former coach Craig Neal is unfair. The beginning of the decline can be traced back to his early years, but it’s not all about him. He led his first team to the NCAA tournament in 2012-13 when the Lobos won 29 games and climbed to 10th place in the national polls. The following season saw just two sellouts and seven games with at least 15,100 fans.
Over the next year only one game – the Aggies – drew at least 15,000 spectators.
In the last six seasons, there have only been two games with crowds exceeding 14,000 and only once have the Lobos had a home crowd of at least 10,000 since the coronavirus pandemic, which forced the team to sit the 2020/21 season on the road for health reasons to spend restrictions in new mexico.
If ever UNM had a chance to gain momentum and have a starving fanbase crawling slowly back through the doors of The Pit, it’s now. A win on Saturday would mean a lot.
Will Webber is the sports editor of The New Mexican. Reach him at [email protected]