It took one natural disaster to make another one survivable.
When Hurricane Katrina made landfall in late August 2005, it devastated New Orleans, along with much of southern Louisiana.
The New Mexico Activities Association was paying attention.
The Louisiana High School Athletic Association saw several schools in the parishes around New Orleans either cancel or postpone fall sporting events, with some schools needing nearly a year to recover. Entire prep football seasons were either lost or postponed, while others saw programs join forces with rival schools outside the disaster zone to form co-op teams.
The lasting result was a devastating financial crisis for Louisiana’s association. Lost revenue from big-money football games created a problem that quickly drew the attention of the NMAA. Administrators here realized they were wholly unprepared to absorb the kind of loss Louisiana suffered, should a major calamity strike.
“Back when Katrina hit, I was still with the budget at that time as an associate director under [former executive director] Gary Tripp,” said Sally Marquez, now the association’s executive director. “Louisiana’s association had a very difficult time when they had to stop sports. We were well aware of it.”
The lessons of 15 years ago were put into action almost immediately. Marquez approached Tripp with the idea of creating an emergency relief fund for those just-in-case moments no one can predict.
That fund — an amount Marquez didn’t reveal — is allowing the NMAA to navigate an estimated $650,000 shortfall after the global coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of roughly half of the association’s championship events.
All spring sports were canceled, as well as the big-revenue source in the state spirit competition, which ranks third in annual revenue behind basketball and football.
The biggest loss came at the basketball state tournament, which went the final three days without fans. Marquez said that will cost the NMAA an estimated $500,000 of revenue.
“People wondered why you had so much money back in the emergency fund,” Marquez said. “This is why. You just never know what’s going to happen, and I’m very thankful that we do have an emergency fund that will help us to keep our doors open and keep us servicing the kids of New Mexico.”
For reference on how the emergency fund is built, take note of the 2019 state basketball tournament. It generated $942,502 in ticket sales and over $1 million of gross income. Following expenditures, it left the NMAA with $509,696 in profits.
Larger-than-expected crowds sent ticket sales skyrocketing and left a surplus of nearly $70,000, which then went into the emergency fund.
Marquez said it’s unexpected boosts like that that have essentially saved the NMAA during the current shutdown.
Some years, the fund’s deposits are bigger than others, but all of them have added up.
“What I was doing was every year, if we had a little bit of extra from our budget or we had a year where, you know, ticket sales were pretty good, especially basketball, then I was putting money over into that fund just in case,” Marquez said.
Additional surpluses have come from reduced expenses or additional revenue from corporate sponsorships and merchandise sales. All of it gets funneled into the emergency plan and kept away from the NMAA’s annual operating budget.
While some may have questioned the need, citing New Mexico’s apparent immunity to natural disasters — we’re generally safe from floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and even mass evacuations — there was no way to predict a global pandemic that shut everything down.
And that, Marquez said, is exactly the point.
“So, yeah, I’m glad that it [the emergency fund] happened and I’m glad that we had the foresight to look into it just in case something like this would ever come up,” she said. “We will be OK.”
Aside from the occasional grasshopper infestation (circa 2014) that made the state track meet an interesting experience or a major cold snap that delayed the 2009 big-school football championship game, there haven’t been that many natural born outliers to create much of a stir.
Assuming things get back to normal before the fall season, the NMAA and organized high school sports in New Mexico will recover.
On top of it, Marquez said, the NMAA has been able to keep its staff intact and keep its daily business operations as normal as possible. To date, she said she is not aware of a single staff member, coach, official or student-athlete who has contracted COVID-19.
While there’s still a long way to go before things return to normal, there’s not doubt that planning and preparation have paid off in the short term.
“When I went to Gary and said we needed some kind of plan, we didn’t know what it might be used for,” Marquez said. “It started back then, and when I became executive director we really worked at it. We do have an emergency fund that will help us recover what we are losing, so I’m thankful for that.”
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