ALBUQUERQUE — Two hours before kickoff of Saturday’s football game at Dreamstyle Stadium, two buses packed with grown men in dark gray sweatsuits rolled into the tailgate lot under crystal clear skies and perfectly warm weather.
There to greet them were … well, not many people, other than those ordered to be there as part of the team’s pregame routine before every home game.
The spirit band stood at the ready and played the school fight song. The cheerleaders and dance team waved their pom-poms and formed a lane for the players to walk through en route to the stadium.
Only a smattering of fans joined in, and a good number of them barely moved from their selected parcel of asphalt just a chip shot away. It was mostly curious looks and the shuffling of feet.
As it turns out, getting the fans to do anything at UNM football games has been an exercise in futility over the years. Aside from a brief three-year run in the early 2000s under former head coach Rocky Long, attendance has been on a steady and disturbing downward spiral.
This year, it’s on pace to hit its lowest per-game total in nearly 30 years — well on its way to produce an average attendance below 20,000 fans for the first time since 1992. Through Saturday’s laughably overstated crowd of 16,708, the Lobos are averaging an anemic 17,908 halfway through the 2018 home schedule.
It comes in the wake of a marketing push from the UNM athletic department that used social media and cross-promotional plans to drum up season ticket sales and single-game deals. Nothing has worked.
The season opener against Incarnate Word on Labor Day weekend drew 18,213. The next game, against Liberty, saw an indiscernible increase of 591 fans for the homecoming game.
As the Lobos fell behind by nearly five touchdowns at halftime of that game, hundreds of fans streamed out of the stadium. Only a few thousand fans were still in the stands by game’s end.
“That doesn’t frustrate me at all,” said Bob Davie, now in his seventh season as head coach at New Mexico. “I think because I’m not frustrated by it, our team doesn’t get frustrated by it.”
If anyone should be frustrated, it’s Davie. He has a clause in his multi-year contract rewarding him with a $25,000 bonus if the team averages 19,000 for a season. He gets another $25,000 if the average climbs above 21,000.
His contract runs through 2021 and comes with an estimated buyout of $1.3 million. Davie has been asked repeatedly about the attendance at home games. Each time he has done his best to talk around a problem that seems to be getting worse.
“I don’t really think it’s a win situation to talk about it,” Davie said. “I kind of think of that old thing that it is what it is, you know? I’ve been pretty impressed with our students with the way they’ve come out. I don’t let that create a negative in my mind because if I do, that it’s going to kind of carry over to the players.”
Pundits point to growing sense of apathy toward UNM in general, particularly since the school decided to kill men’s soccer, skiing and beach volleyball earlier this year as part of a drastic cost-cutting measure designed to stem the tide of a $4.7 million athletics deficit.
The school has been heavily criticized in recent years for in-house scandals ranging from an ill-fated golfing excursion to Scotland to football-related controversies, such as Davie’s monthlong suspension earlier this year for detrimental conduct within his program.
Davie has been largely absent from the online advance the school is taking with marketing on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. A commercial promoting season tickets aired this summer but didn’t use Davie’s likeness. A voiceover of Lou Holtz, Davie’s former boss at Notre Dame, was used to extoll the virtues of supporting the local team.
Winning hasn’t helped football’s outlook, either. Despite a bowl bid in 2015, attendance dipped by more than 3,000 per game — about 13 percent — the following year when the Lobos made a second straight appearance in the New Mexico Bowl.
Add up the scheduling quirks seen in 2018 — the New Mexico State game was in Las Cruces, less-than-appealing home games against Incarnate Word and Liberty to start the year, just two home games in the first seven weeks, demoralizing losses on homecoming weekend and again at Colorado State on Oct. 13, and a nationally televised home game against Fresno State — it adds up to more of the same old, same old.
The concern is starting to trickle beyond football. Head basketball coach Paul Weir knows it’s going to take serious work to get the traditionally fickle UNM fan base to come back.
“I’m not sure if we’ve gotten to a point where we have to prove ourselves as teams and individuals every year, like starting all over again,” he said. “I know there were people for us on the sidelines when I got here and I would have been on the sidelines, too, to be honest. I just don’t know if we all have to do it from scratch every single year.”
UNM took a more realistic approach to budgeting for its football program this summer.
When building his annual budget of approximately $33 million, athletic director Eddie Nuñez slashed ticket projections more than 60 percent from last year. Estimated at $2 million in 2016 and $1.9 million last season, it’s down to $1.2 million for six games at Dreamstyle Stadium this fall.
“The bottom line, none of that matters when that ball is up in the air and there’s technique involved,” Davie said. “You know, you can control certain things. Other things you can’t control and if you get on a path of talking about all those things you can’t control, you’re like a roller coaster.”
Marketing endeavors like one with Santa Fe’s Meow Wolf allowed fans to purchase a family pack of four tickets — two kids and two adults — for all six home games. The total cost? Cheaper than a berm seat at Isotopes Park.
A spot in the grass for baseball is $8. The family pack went for $5 per person, no grass stains required.
And, still, the fans continue to stay away in alarming numbers.
Nuñez has referenced the national trend of shrinking attendance figures, saying UNM is not immune to the issue plaguing most schools. National TV has had something to do with it since the oversaturation of college football makes it easier for people to watch games at home or their personal devices than to wait in line and buy a ticket without the benefit of live stats and the creature comforts of home.
“I don’t know if there’s an easy answer to this because this community is so fragile in a lot of ways, you know what I mean?” Weir said. “So we’ll see how it goes.”
Average attendance at UNM football games the last eight years. Bob Davie took over as head coach in 2012:
2010 — 20,888 (6 games)
2011 — 20,027 (6 games)
2012 — 22,307 (6 games)
2013 — 23,537 (6 games)
2014 — 21,937 (6 games)
2015 — 23,528 (8 games)
2016 — 20,277 (7 games)
2017 — 21,194 (6 games)
2018 — 17,908 (3 games)
(1,163,222 fans in 54 games; 21,541 average)