ALBUQUERQUE — One of the many bullet points on Joe Thuente’s résumé includes a brief stint with the marketing department at Northwestern University, a major college Big Ten program in one of the country’s largest metropolitan markets.
What he saw there is what he envisions as the future at the University of New Mexico. Northwestern billed itself as Chicago’s Big Ten team, buying billboards that claimed as much as part of an aggressive campaign to stake the Wildcats’ claim as the college team in the Windy City.
“That can happen here,” Thuente said. “It should happen here. This isn’t just Albuquerque’s team; it’s New Mexico’s team.”
Hired in June as UNM’s associate athletic director for marketing and communications, Thuente is spearheading a move to revamp the university’s badly damaged image in sports. Budget cuts, the elimination of programs, the indictment of a former athletic director, the bloated buyout of a former men’s basketball coach and increasing public pressure for transparency has given UNM a black eye that will take years to recover from.
One step at a time, Thuente said.
“I had full understanding of the position UNM was in but I really believe in what [athletic director] Eddie Nuñez is doing and I think I can help bring it back,” he said, calling his first two months on the job as the biggest challenge of his career.
It’s an unenviable job that leaves Thuente directly in the crosshairs of every coach and booster wondering why the school isn’t doing more to promote Lobo athletics. Given the glaring lack of marketing done in the last few months for the Lobo football team, it’s safe to assume head coach Bob Davie is near the top of that list.
Saturday’s season opener at Dreamstyle Stadium — which kicked off when it was 97 degrees at 4 p.m. — drew just 13,749 fans, leaving about two-thirds of the stadium completely empty. Most of those empty seats were in the sun-soaked west grandstand as even the vast majority of students abandoned their cheering section in favor of the shade of a nearby tree on the grassy hillside outside the south end zone.
The laundry list of reasons of why Lobo football’s popularity is sagging to generational lows is longer than Thuente’s arm and, according to many, it begins with a lack of marketing designed to promote the football team to a public known for its apathy toward UNM football in general.
Before a recent practice, Davie lamented the fact that there was virtually no multimedia presence to promote Saturday’s game. He pointed to very few TV spots and just one billboard along Interstate 25 heading south through Albuquerque toward the stadium.
“I certainly understand if coach Davie is frustrated because I will admit we are a little behind,” Thuente said. “We are not where we will be when we get fully going. There have been some things that we’ve missed, I will be the first to admit that they haven’t been done perfectly.”
UNM officials say a true marketing initiative for football should be in place by February or March. None of that was done in the months before Thuente’s arrival, leaving him and his staff so far behind that he admits that any kind of marketing movement will not be seen until the football season is halfway over.
“It’s not a lost season, but we’ve got things we’re working on,” Thuente said.
Nuñez has pledged his full support to Thuente, particularly given the fact that there’s not much of a budget for his staff to work with. This week Nuñez said money has gotten even tighter than in year’s past, although it’s something Thuente isn’t ill-prepared for.
During stops at South Dakota and UT-San Antonio, he has built marketing initiatives that saw staff expansion and greater footprints within the community by way of a four-pronged approach of traditional media, digital platforms, email and social media. There are also trade deals in place with traditional media outlets to put the Lobo shield out in the public eye.
One of his first tasks is hiring a staff member to directly oversee the marketing plan for Lobo football. The department hasn’t had one for a few months, literally leaving the head of football’s promotional push unattended.
When Davie was facing intense scrutiny over his job security after a second straight 3-9 season a year ago, Nuñez held a rare forum with the local media with the coach at his side. The plan then was to make Davie more of a public figurehead for Lobo football. That led to the creation of a committee charged with improving the fan experience on game day and making the team more accessible to the public.
It’s that kind of work, Thuente said, that he hopes to do for every program under UNM’s watch. Football will eventually become front and center when the time comes. Until then it’s one step at a time, one small push in sequential order to make the Lobos the marketing force that Thuente’s former employer has become in Chicago.