Richardson made pitch after pitch for New Mexico sports

Sep. 2—No one ever accused Bill Richardson of not thinking big — and dreaming bigger.

Of all those thoughts and dreams, New Mexico sports were a prime beneficiary.

To the mind-bending prospect of a National Football League franchise someday making Albuquerque its home, Richardson said (in effect), why not? Let's at least look into it.

To the far more realistic hope of Albuquerque hosting an annual college bowl game, Richardson said, let's make it happen.

To the formation of a state-government entity solely dedicated to attracting sporting events of national impact to New Mexico, Richardson said, well, of course.

To the formation of a national boxing commission dedicated to making the sport safer and saner, Richardson said, I'll do my damndest.

To the abolishment of a 7-percent New Mexico gross receipts tax that was discouraging boxing promoters from staging events in the state, Richardson said, let's get rid of the thing.

To the allocation of millions in capital outlay for the construction and renovation of University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University athletics facilities, Richardson said, you betcha.

Richardson, New Mexico's governor from 2003-11 and a figure of national and international stature, died on Saturday at age 75.

To a legacy that includes the freeing of hostages, the brokering of international treaties and a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, add everything Richardson did for sports in our state.

Richardson's love for sports came naturally, an outgrowth of his prowess as a prep school and college baseball pitcher. (But no, as was erroneously reported for years, he was never drafted by the Kansas City Athletics.)

During his years as a New Mexico congressman (1983-97), Richardson — a self-described boxing fanatic — worked tirelessly to establish a national boxing commission that would rid the sport of corruption and make it safer for the fighters. In 1986, a Richardson-sponsored bill was passed in the House.

"My bill offers a reasonable approach to the problems of the sport of boxing," he said.

The bill died in the Senate.

In 2004, Richardson established the New Mexico Sports Authority, hiring Albuquerque Journal sports writer Dennis Latta as executive director. The following year, the authority helped bring a Phoenix Suns-Sacramento Kings preseason game to the Pit.

In 2006, the authority played a key role in creating the New Mexico Bowl, contested for the 17th consecutive year last December.

That same year, Richardson allocated $15 million in capital outlay toward additions, improvements and renovations to the UNM sports complex. The previous year, he'd earmarked $4.2 million for the construction of what became the Davalos Practice Facility south of the Pit.

Athletics, he said, were "perhaps the most visible face of the university."

Not everything sports-related that Richardson touched turned to gold. Some, in fact, resembled fool's gold.

In 2005, New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson voiced unhappiness with the team's lease with the Louisiana Superdome and was making noises about moving the franchise.

Ignoring the fact that Albuquerque lacked a suitable facility for an NFL franchise, let alone the necessary supporting infrastructure, Richardson made a pitch.

Swing and a miss.

That fall, Richardson issued a request for proposals "pertaining to the feasibility of attracting a National Football League (NFL) franchise to the State of New Mexico as one of the 'anchor' components of a comprehensive economic development program."

A Richardson spokesman said the governor wasn't actually suggesting that an NFL franchise might be coming to New Mexico that year, or the next, or even the next decade. Just thinking, and dreaming, big.

Even an NFL preseason game, something Albuquerque hadn't seen since the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants played at University Stadium in 1961, eluded Richardson's grasp.

In 2005, said Latta (who died in June, also at age 75), neither a Cowboy-Broncos game nor even a Cowboys-Cardinals scrimmage came to fruition despite the authority's efforts.

But, hey. Richardson, who (according to a 2005 Journal story) once struck out 24 batters in a single game for Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts, never stopped throwing the high, hard one in support of New Mexico sports.

Evidence? Just walk around UNM's south campus, or attend a local boxing promotion, or buy a ticket for the 2023 New Mexico Bowl, and look around.