Isotopes lack marketing challenges faced by Lobos

April 8, 2017

ALBUQUERQUE — In a literal sense, they are only separated by a few yards of asphalt.

In a figurative sense, they couldn’t be further apart.

On one side of Avenida Cesar Chavez stands the most famous building in New Mexico, The Pit. On the other is Isotopes Park, arguably one of its most endearing. In between lies a marketing and business chasm that is as wide as anything a local sports fan can imagine.

While Isotopes Park has been a model of community pride and business success during its 15 years of existence, The Pit has has lost some of the luster off its historical shine the last three years. Average attendance has plummeted to an all-time low for home games, dipping more than 22 percent off its total of 15,022 for the Lobo men in the 2012-13 season.

That dip has cost the university millions of dollars and it partially led to the firing of basketball coach Craig Neal. It has left UNM administrators weighing options on how to end the cash hemorrhage.

Athletic Director Paul Krebs said this week that the university is not considering raising ticket prices to make up for lost revenue, but it also is not simply idling its time hoping things will get better on their own.

“I said previously and I will repeat that we are looking at our pricing model for basketball just like we looked at football,” Krebs said. “The good news is we’re already seeing for us a significant increase in football ticket sales year-to-date from previous years, in terms of new ticket buyers. Coach Neal’s dismissal won’t factor in the fact that we had planned on reviewing our ticket prices. There is absolutely no intention of raising prices. We’ll look at whether we should scale the house differently.”

Across the street is Isotopes Park and its fan-friendly atmosphere that is, quite frankly, seemingly immune to the pressure of producing a winning team. The Isotopes have been the top farm club for three major-league teams in the past 14 years, reaching the playoffs just three times since 2003. They have yet to win a postseason series, yet they’ve averaged 8,139 fans in 986 home games since the stadium’s opening.

General manager John Traub said he can go to speaking engagements and hardly anyone listening to him can name the team’s second baseman, but most can identify the team’s mascot, Orbit.

At UNM, nearly everyone knows the starting lineup for the basketball team and is very much aware of its head coach’s reaction after every win or loss.

“Yeah, they’re in a fishbowl,” Traub said. “I mean, Lobo basketball and football is an important part of this community as well and there’s a lot of passion towards that and people want their teams to win. People want this team [the Isotopes] to win. There’s a lot of history of winning Triple-A baseball teams in this community. We haven’t won all the games we’ve wanted to win. We haven’t gone to the playoffs as many times as we’ve wanted to. I don’t know if it’s a luxury, but it’s just a different focus.”

Bottom line, winning is secondary to customer service at Isotopes Park — and it’s everything across the street.

“We’re about customers, customer service, families and, you know, it’s America’s past time,” Traub said. “We have no control over the roster, either. It sounds corny, but if you’re coming out to the ballpark, what’s better than sitting out in the good weather eating a hot dog?”

Krebs said the fix for UNM is all about taking the right approach, and part of it is the same kind of customer service the Isotopes have done. Restructuring ticket prices to make games more affordable is an option, Krebs said, but so are the intangibles like marketing, winning games and having the players be role models in the classroom and the community.

“I’m confident that with the right leadership and the right pricing model in place, our fans will be excited and support this program,” he said, adding that the charisma of the new coach can also play a role by creating a buzz in the community.

Traub said the lesson learned is, in part, not making the assumption that Albuquerque’s fans will automatically turn out based solely on the idea that that’s the way it’s always been done. The Pit just celebrated its 50th year and turned in its worst season, attendance-wise, on record.

“We work really hard to keep it fresh,” Traub said. “I think if we took the fans for granted, took the support for granted, we’d probably be in a tough spot.”

Krebs said the fresh approach to football ticket pricing has already resulted in an increase in early sales for the 2017 season. That same plan may go into place in The Pit prior to the 2017-18 season.

More importantly, Krebs said, is the fact that with more tickets being sold, donations to the school go up as a result.

“Are we pricing ourselves out?” Krebs said. “Are we making Lobo basketball unaffordable for families for the next generation of Lobo fans? And whether that’s scaling the house a little differently where we have some cheaper prices, reductions, marketing differently. I think all those things are in play and so it’s not just who the coach is but it’s a variety of factors and we had planned on assessing that prior to the change.”