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New Mexico United sets unwanted precedent by having to play home games out of state

(Credit: USL)

  • USL Championship team forced on the road due to local Covid-19 health guidelines
  • Club has so far relocated two home games to the venues of opposition teams
  • “It’s difficult…but a challenge that we’ve all taken on,” says team owner Peter Trevisani

United Soccer League Championship club New Mexico United has set an unwanted precedent by becoming the only professional sports team in the United States not able to stage games in its home state in the wake of the global Covid-19 pandemic.

An executive order by New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, which enforces a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for virtually anyone entering the state, has meant that New Mexico United has had to play all its games on the road this season.

It is a situation that has also forced New Mexico State University to cancel its fall college football season, with the hope of playing in the spring.

The USL is one of the few sports organizations which has opted to stage games in home markets in the US amid the pandemic, along with Major League Baseball and now, with the recent conclusion of the MLS is Back Tournament in Florida, Major League Soccer.

A number of MLB and USL teams have had games postponed due to coronavirus issues, while the Toronto Blue Jays were forced to relocate to Buffalo, New York, after the Canadian federal government denied the baseball club’s bid to play at their normal home venue, Rogers Centre in Toronto.

However, due to Governor Lujan Grisham’s executive order, New Mexico United is the only US-based team not allowed to play in its home state.

As such, the team postponed its scheduled first home match against Real Monarchs to later in the season, while so far two home games were moved to opponent venues the venue of its opponents – an August 8 match against Phoenix Rising and one against the Colorado Springs Switchbacks on August 15.

Due to the fluid nature of coronavirus restrictions across the US, the USL Championship provided provisions in the 2020 season competition structure to allow for teams to play more away matches or more home matches, as necessary, in order to stay in compliance with public health guidelines in their respective markets.

With the expectation that the team would not be able to play in front of fans this year, New Mexico United made arrangements to play home games at the University of New Mexico Soccer Complex, rather than at regular venue Isotopes Park, the home of Class AAA Minor League Baseball team Albuquerque Isotopes. But it is unclear at this stage if New Mexico United will be able to play there this year.

SportBusiness spoke to New Mexico United majority owner and president Peter Trevisani about how the franchise has managed the historic situation.

What has been the general effect of Covid-19 on your business operations?

Like many businesses in America and New Mexico we’ve been severely impacted by the coronavirus. Almost all of our sources of revenue have been taken away and are no longer accessible to us – those are primarily tickets [for games]. So it’s been devastating and it’s probably not something that will return this year and probably won’t until we get closer to a vaccine.

Did you vote for the USL to return to play? If so, why?

I did vote and was a strong advocate for return to play. I believe that it goes beyond a spreadsheet and simple profit and loss, I think the coronavirus has been devastating in many ways. But it’s insidious in the fact that not only has it created all this extra stress on us, but it’s also almost taken away all our healthy outlets for dealing with stress. So we have to really rally around the few things that we can do and I believe that if we can provide a sense of relief from the pandemic, then I think that we’re providing a tremendous service. So I believe that it was an obligation, not just an option, to return to play.

After USL announced that it was going to play in home markets, what was your reaction when it was announced that you wouldn’t be able to play games in New Mexico?

When we voted to return to play, we were already in a situation in which we weren’t allowed to come together. So we were under the impression that we weren’t going to be allowed to play with fans for sure. I didn’t necessarily consider that there would be a 14-day ban on anyone coming into the state, which would make it impossible to host home matches. But I trust the governor and her leadership and doing what’s best for the state so we’re complying with the health order and will continue to do so. If there’s a period where it’s safe to play with fans at home then we’d love to do that – and we’d be very excited to do that.

How difficult is this situation for the staff, players, and fans?

It is difficult but if you really think about the amount of pain that people are feeling, the amount of loss that people are feeling…compared to that it’s not difficult at all. If we need to get on a bus and drive for six hours rather than get in a car and drive for six minutes, then that’s what we need to do. That’s a challenge that we’ve all taken on and it’s important that we focus on things that we can say yes to and overcome whatever hurdles are needed to overcome to make those things happen.

(Credit: New Mexico United)

Did you consider setting up shop out of state at another venue to create a new home?

Inside New Mexico is the safest place for our players and that’s of No. 1 importance to us. The majority of our players live together, either as roommates or in the same building, they get tested once a week and train together and have meetings together, and are quarantining between games. We also haven’t had any positive tests, which I’m very happy about, so I feel like we’re in a very safe place. To go to another market in another state would be a monumental challenge on short notice and I think we would be making it less safe for our players and that is non-negotiable for me. So we’ll stay put and make the travel arrangements that we need to make.

How confident are you that you will play home games this season?

I’m not thinking too much about it. There does seem to be a stabilization in New Mexico and if that trend continues then I think it’s possible that we could have a home game with no fans. If that’s the case, fantastic, and if it’s not, our quest for the [USL championship] will just have to all be done all the road.

In what ways are you looking to engage fans in the absence of games in-state?

We just had our home kit launch, which was delayed as Puma factories were closed in Mexico. We have a retail shop and at 5.05am (505 is the area code in Albuquerque), the kits went on sale curbside. We had people that started camping out at 1pm the day before. We had a pizza party and it felt like a tailgate even though we were socially distanced. By 4:30am there were about 150 people around the corner lined up for when we opened. That was the kind of engagement that will give me whatever fuel I need to get through the rest of the year. We sold a tremendous amount in the store and later online, and it shows the power and dedication of our [fan] base.

How have your medium- to long-term plans been affected by the coronavirus crisis?

All of those plans are fully intact. Frankly, they feel even more deeply-rooted than they did before. This pandemic will end and we are going to need things that create a bridge to hope and prosperity…and a team, a stadium, a practice facility can help do that. We are pushing forward to make that stadium a reality and not just that, that it can rejuvenate the area that it’s placed in. We’re not stopping.

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