By Daniel Libit
Dreamstyle Remodeling owner Larry Chavez said it’s his understanding that the WisePies deal “wasn’t going to continue” by the time he stepped in to purchase The Pit’s naming rights.
In an interview with NMFishbowl.com this week, Chavez detailed a timeline of the process that challenges the public accounts UNM and WisePies Pizza & Salads have claimed about the transition of the basketball arena’s titling. Additionally, Chavez helped clarify why his company’s naming-rights deal was run through Learfield Communications, the university’s marketing and broadcast rights partner, as opposed to the UNM Foundation, the steward of the WisePies “gift agreement.”
And so…once more unto the breach, Lobo fans: What was the state of the WisePies naming-rights deal when Dreamstyle entered the picture? Did one actually make room for the other? Or did one merely save the other’s hide — and, perhaps, UNM Athletic Director Paul Krebs’ in the process?
UNM has tried to maintain an ambiguity over the chicken-or-the-egg grilling, while presenting the official storyline that WisePies graciously stepped aside so that UNM could strike a richer deal with Dreamstyle.
Buried beneath is the question of whether the WisePies deal was dead in the water by the time Chavez and the Lobos were negotiating to rename University Stadium and re-rename The Pit. Weeks before the Dreamstyle announcement, sources had been telling NMFishbowl.com that the WisePies deal was, in fact, on the ropes, and that UNM was scrambling to find a replacement option. In such a scenario, Dreamstyle offered not only more money to UNM, but a public face-saving at a most auspicious time.
However, following the news of its parting, WiesPies publicly insisted that its deal (and payments) with the Lobos would have continued, had the university not asked for it to relinquish The Pit’s naming rights. On April 27, Krebs suggested, however subtly, that Dreamstyle was the one to set the termination of WisePies Arena into motion.
“In the current negotiations [with Dreamstyle], it was asked if WisePies Arena would be in play, and per our agreement we asked Steve [Chavez, WisePies’ owner],” the UNM AD told the paper.
However, Dreamstyle’s Larry Chavez (no relation to Steve) said that while his company may have filled the gap (and then some), it didn’t create it. In his interview with NMFishbowl.com, Chavez tried to recall the timeline of events to the best of his recollection.
Last summer, Chavez’s company helped renovate the Lobo football offices for free. In the course of that project, Chavez said UNM asked if he was interested in having a conference-room facility at University Stadium named in his honor. Those conversations eventually turned into talks about the naming rights to the entire stadium, which Chavez was keenly interested in.
Chavez said that last fall, during a Lobo football road game, he ran into Krebs and had a “15-second conversation,” in which he mentioned that “if the situation with WisePies didn’t work out,” he would be interested in stepping in.
“That was the extent of that,” Chavez said. “(Krebs) just nodded his head.”
Chavez said he had, by then, taken note of the myriad media accounts describing WisePies’ financial woes — tax liens, an ownership shake-up, and an ultimately fruitless effort to sell the company to an out-of-state buyer — the same headlines that left many Lobo fans wondering whether WiesPies would ever make good on its 10-year, $5 million commitment to the UNM Foundation.
On March 2, Chavez was inducted into the UNM Anderson School of Management Hall of Fame. In a speech he gave at the ceremony, Chavez recalled his now-familiar story of selling sodas as a kid at University Stadium. A few weeks later, he said, UNM came to him about a package deal.
“I am assuming at that point they had a good feeling that WisePies wasn’t going to continue,” Chavez said. “We wanted to be careful that we didn’t bully into the situation. On the contrary, we stayed away until it was very apparent there would be a change. Always in business, I have made a practice of not interfering.”
Chavez said that he was first presented with a written proposal for the dual naming-rights agreement in early April. Krebs made oblique reference to this in an April 5 Albuquerque Journal story, where he harbingered a big bump in revenue from a new, “seven-figure” naming-rights partner.
“I don’t know a whole lot of what went on between UNM and WisePies,” Chavez said, “other than I expressed an interest [in the Pit’s naming rights] that didn’t get pursued for several months and, ultimately, we both expressed an interest to eachother. My assumption is this wouldn’t work out [between UNM and WisePies], but I hadn’t been told that and I didn’t have any details.”
The Dreamstyle agreement differed dramatically from its predecessor’s. Notably, it was written as a business contract, as opposed to a philanthropic pledge, and it was run through the Learfield subsidary, Lobo Sports Properties, LLC. At first blush, this move struck some observers — including this reporter — as geared towards circumventing public disclosure, since Learfield is a private company not subject to the state’s open records laws.
But Chavez said that during negotiations, it was made clear to him that Learfield, through its licensing agreement with UNM, was entitled to some piece of the pie. UNM signed its most recent licensing agreement with Learfield in January 2013. Currently, Learfield pays a base of $4.8 million to UNM, in exchange for radio broadcast and other sponsorship rights to UNM Athletics. It is unclear whether the WisePies naming-rights deal, signed in 2014, triggered an off-set of Learfield’s payments; neither representatives from Learfield nor UNM responded to questions about the agreement, which is due to expire in June 2020.
“What they preached when they talked is (Learfield has) all the adverting rights to the facilities, so whatever they give up to us, they have a right to be compensated for,” Chavez said. “So, if we have our name on the floor, or we get a booth for the basketball (arena), which is of pretty nominal value, they are due some compensation. So that makes total sense.”
And even if Learfield wasn’t expressly entitled to a cut of Dreamstyle’s money, Chavez said that UNM likely would have had to pay the piper when it came to renegotiating its licensing deal.
“I wouldn’t want to dilute their future negotiations if we had demanded that nothing go to Learfield,” he said.
Nevertheless, Chavez insisted that the initial naming-rights payment of $1 million would go directly to UNM, which he presented in the form of a giant, cardboard check at the May 3 press conference.
Not presented at that press conference, however, was the actual naming-rights agreement.
UNM insisted that because the new deal was struck, ostensibly, between two private companies, it was not entitled to disseminate it. Learfield declined at the press conference to release the document voluntarily, but Chavez ultimately passed a copy along to the Journal. He said that he never had any firm discussions with UNM about how to handle the matter, but didn’t see any good reason to keep things secret.
“All we were told was there was some proprietary information in there that Learfield didn’t want to share in the market place,” Chavez said.
The actual contract was, indeed, illuminative. As the Journal first reported, Learfield will receive $100,000 annually as part of the Dreamstyle deal — a bullet-point that had not been volunteered in a memo provided to media members. The agreement also showed that a third of the Dreamstyle money had been specifically earmarked for Lobo football, with the rest going for general athletic department purposed. In the weeks since the press conference, Chavez has stood out as a model of transparency and approachability, especially when compared to the Athletic Department he is bequeathing millions of dollars to.
Krebs and a spokesperson for the UNM Foundation declined to comment for this story.
As for WisePies, on Thursday NMFishbowl.com asked the company whether it was, indeed, committed to paying the remainder of its naming-rights “gift”, or if it had prepped UNM for a premature conclusion.
WisePies spokeswoman Season Elliott responded with this statement:
“When [Steve] Chavez purchased the company in October 2016, his top priority then and now is to fulfill all commitments made under the WisePies Pizza & Salad name. There has been continuous speculation regarding these commitments with little regard to the fact that [Steve] Chavez’s efforts have been nothing but honorable in his fulfilments. This includes the naming-rights agreement. As we continue to grow and focus on what’s to come and the positive vision [Steve] Chavez has for future relationships with UNM and for New Mexico, my hope is that you can also support that effort. When you contribute positivity to your community, it will come back to you ten fold.”
(Featured photo credit: Ken Lund/Flickr)