Sports teams have come and gone at the Rio Rancho Events Center in its 14-year history, but New Mexico Runners’ owner and president Andres Trujillo thinks his indoor soccer team is here to stay — even in light of the pandemic, which shut down the tail end of the 2019-20 season.
Despite the recent season, which began last December and ended prematurely in March due to the pandemic, Trujillo is optimistic about the Runners’ future.
“Everybody knows soccer is on the rise here in New Mexico,” he said at an introductory press conference at the Star Center (now the Rio Rancho Events Center) in mid-June 2018. He said the sport’s family-friendly, affordable entertainment would be enjoyed by families in the City of Vision.
They did, just not in the numbers he’d hoped for.
Nonetheless, Trujillo said if the team’s 2019-20 finale would have been played, saluting the area’s first responders, he would have broken even.
Trujillo, believed to be the youngest sports-franchise owner in state history, was confident when he decided to bring an indoor soccer league franchise to Rio Rancho, with his New Mexico Runners playing six regular-season home games in the Major Arena Soccer League 2 in the Events Center. Playing six to a side, including a goalkeeper at each end, the games consist of four 15-minute quarters, with players changing on the fly, as in hockey, with a lot of scoring.
MASL2 is an official developmental league of the Major Arena Soccer League; the M2 and MASL represent the highest level of arena soccer in the world, with teams playing coast-to-coast in the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
Trujillo knows his team can’t compete with New Mexico United, which drew crowds in excess of 10,000 to Isotopes Park in its 2019 season. But the Runners can offer more: Plenty of goals, a chance for fans to be much closer to the action, at least one local player (Cleveland High’s Gatorade Player of the Year Gabe Legendre has seen action with the Runners) and ability of fans to meet the players and get autographs, and Trujillo’s desire to get his players active in the community.
Some teams in the league have been playing, but in “friendlies,” and not counting toward standings or eventual championship. The Runners wouldn’t be able to do that, Trujillo said.
“A lot of our players have jobs here in our community, and with the quarantine order — the 14 days — if we travel? It’s impossible for them to take time away from their family, their work,” he explained. “So getting on track, it’ll be another year.
“There’s been thoughts of doing a summer season, in May-June,” he said. “But, again, New Mexico’s restrictions have been more statistically stricter than other states. So that’s our first priority — planning for 2021 — and figure it out that way.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“Arena sports, in general, is based on fans’ revenue,” Trujillo said, with prior experience working with the New Mexico Gladiators football team. “(But) TV deals are almost non-existent in arena sports. Now, you’ve got restrictions on travel, you’ve got restrictions on venue, and what about testing? So there’s another factor.”
Anyone who knows Trujillo knows he smiles a lot.
“Have I ever been bummed out about anything? Sure: any time I buy a Powerball ticket and don’t win,” he laughed.
“The metro area needs to come together,” he said, which is a premise for having a local sports team in Rio Rancho that folks can root for. “This is what’s going to keep us focused as a common denominator.”
In these pandemic times, many believe sports gives most people something to enjoy, a team to root for, happiness when their team wins.
“Getting behind the New Mexico Runners and say, ‘Hey, welcome aboard to another season and we’re looking forward to you coming back,’” he said, proud to be New Mexico-born and bred, and a 2004 graduate of Valley High School, followed by graduating from the University of New Mexico in 2010, where he majored in psychology and minored in business.
“I had to take a break — because I had to pay,” he said of the six-year gap between degrees. He stayed busy working at KQTM-FM in Rio Rancho and behind the scenes for the New Mexico Gladiators arena football team. “I paid for college; I worked full-time. I don’t have student loans or anything like that.”
Trujillo has some ideas about college: “College was great; I’m the first from my family to graduate from a four-year college. But at the end of the day, the hands-on, being involved and doing these things, that’s what it’s all about.”
Meet new boss for N.M. Games
When Fred Hutlberg, the long-time executive director of the New Mexico Games, retired, his assistant since 2014, Trujillo, was the natural heir apparent for that post.
Of course, due to the pandemic, the Games didn’t play out this year, either.
Trujillo’s Runners optimism carries over to the Games, which are to resume in 2021.
“We’re planning for a full run, starting in May,” he said. “Obviously, basketball is our biggest event, which is planned for Memorial Day weekend.
“We’re holding out for most events, keeping events that are socially-distant safe — socially-distanced conscious,” he said, noting swimming and arm wrestling will be canceled, and maybe judo, too.
“We’ll see what happens with the vaccine,” he cautioned.
“We’re really pushing digital,” he said. “Using the digital framework is the key to getting people involved. We’re potentially brining E-sports into the mix, part of what we are offering,” due to its popularity.
“You’ve got a lot of kids; you’ve got a lot of the younger generation and folks in their 30s, 40s, are gaming,” he said. “We’ve got a huge request for cornhole; our plans are to bring back soccer. … Mountain biking is a new sport we’re planning to bring to the Games. … disc golf is a potential.”
Baseball, volleyball, ninja competition, track & field, bowling (at Tenpins & More in Rio Rancho again) and archery will be included among the events for 2021.
“It’s quite a bit,” he said, with a lot depending on how the state reacts to vaccinations and distancing, and if counties are moving into yellow and green tiers. “A typical New Mexico Games year is 20 events.”
Events that became virtual are a 5K, 10K, half-marathon and marathon. Entries may be made online, and once participants complete the events, they report their times — “They’re on their own,” he said.
“They get mailed a finisher’s media, a T-shirt from a random year, a bag from a random year and a hat from a random year (of the Games).
“We called it the Retro-Virtual Fun Run,” Trujillo said, claiming the idea as his own.
Lastly, Trujillo said, “For us, for the New Mexico Games, what I wanted to implement, is a sports scholarship. … That way we have the ability to help local student-athletes, (like) somebody who comes in and helps out, learns how sports work.”
Noting that his family is only on the “second stage,” Trujillo said a Facebook promotion “looking for Albuquerque families” enticed him to try to get on the popular TV game show.
“I said, ‘Yeah, what the heck? We’ll be applying for it.’ I didn’t tell anyone. Everybody loves (host) Steve Harvey.”.
“They just wanted to know who we are and what we do as a family,” he said. “So I told them we are a family owned and operated New Mexico sports team. I told them about the New Mexico Runners. As a family, we do game-day operation, we run the production, we do all this. My mom’s involved, my sisters, my wife — it’s a family affair.
“They obviously liked that, so they sent me an email back (for us) to do a Zoom interview,” he said. “Basically, they’re going to send each one of us (the Albuquerque applicants) questions to answer separately. Then they’ll basically get us on the call with everybody on the Zoom, see what we’re all about.”
Then, Family Feud staff will decide who’s ready to go.