Near the end of an emotional three-hour meeting that included speeches from more than a dozen Lobo men’s soccer supporters, the University of New Mexico Board of Regents passed an athletics department budget that includes, among many measures, a “reduction in sports” in future years.
The vote was 6-1, with student regent Garrett Adcock, a former Lobo football player, the only one to vote against the measure.
After the vote, first-year athletic director Eddie Nuñez said there is still a possibility, though an unlikely one, the department can arrive at the $1.9 million in sports-reduction savings without the elimination of any of the department’s 22 varsity sports. “As a former student athlete myself, believe me, I’m going to do everything I can to see if we can do this without cutting a sport,” he said.
But new UNM President Garnett Stokes, who presented the proposal that specifically includes the line “reduction in sports,” was less optimistic, suggesting to the Journal after the meeting she doesn’t see how that can be avoided.
“I can’t imagine a scenario where we wouldn’t have to cut sports,” Stokes said. “I just can’t at this point. We don’t have other revenue sources to fill that kind of recurring deficit. … It’s a really unfortunate place to be.”
In addition to the $1.9 million savings anticipated from the reduction in sports, the department is also tasked with finding an additional $550,000 in savings each year.
A decision by Nuñez on which sports could be cut is due by July 1. He and others in the athletic department will now move forward with identifying the criteria for the decision, including finances and Title IX compliance factors.
Any sport cut will be given at least one year’s notice.
The 22 varsity sports sponsored at UNM is more than the Mountain West Conference average of the 17-18 range. Lobo athletics has failed to balance its roughly $33 million annual operating budget in eight of the past 10 fiscal years and projects at least an $800,000 shortfall this fiscal year that ends June 30. That shortfall is in addition to the $1.3 million gifted to the department in November by the Regents that is not expected to be paid back.
Some of the details
The approved plan calls for a repayment over 10 years to main campus reserves for the $4.7 million in accumulated deficits for athletics entering this fiscal year, but that won’t start for two years.
Starting in Fiscal Year 2020 and continuing until it is paid off in FY29, athletics is responsible for repayment to main campus reserves of $487,329 per year until its accumulated debt of $4.7 million is paid down, which would satisfy the demands of the state’s Higher Education Department that has asked UNM to provide, in writing, a deficit reduction plan.
Faculty Senate President Pamela Pyle noted the faculty was pleased to see a “total forgiveness is not being considered” for past athletics debts, as had been proposed in recent months.
But the approved plan also acknowledges that to get through the current and next fiscal years, before sports are cut, the athletics department will need millions of dollars in additional institutional support. According to the proposal, this will include tuition waivers for student-athlete scholarships and allocations from Mesa Del Sol land sales that will be transferred to athletics in each of the next two fiscal years.
More specifically, the budget plan will cover the projected current fiscal year shortfall of $818,703 with “land sale proceeds.” For the 2019 fiscal year, there will be additional help from the university in the amounts of $885,435 from land sales, $641,000 from unspecified institutional support and $750,000 from “grant-aid subsidies” that are to include a combination of tuition waivers ($725,000) for student athlete scholarships and $250,000 in “room and board discounts”.
Ahead of the cuts
One on the sports on the potential chopping block is the UNM men’s soccer program, which has played in two Final Fours, one national championship game and has been a conference champion seven times since 2001, head coach Jeremy Fishbein announced to the media and UNM alumni on Monday.
More than a dozen supporters spoke in support of the soccer program. They included former players, coaches and community leaders, asking that the Board not cut any sport until more time is taken to consider the matter.
Fishbein made it clear in an emotional speech that this matter is very “personal” to him. His program has drawn numerous players from other states and countries, as well from within New Mexico. Though neither his sport, nor any sport, has been determined as one that will be cut, he simply asked again not to rush into any decision.
“I’m embarrassed to be up here,” the men’s soccer coach said. “That’s how I feel. I’m embarrassed. … We hired President Stokes and our athletic director to lead. … They haven’t been here very long. Give them a chance.”
That was echoed by former Lobo All-American Jason Hix, now a local business owner and father of former Lobo player Justin Hix and current Lobo women’s soccer player Jessie Hix.
“We get one chance to make this decision,” Jason Hix said. “A hasty decision made now can’t be unmade.”
Among those who spoke was a current Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Deputy and a former player from Anthony, N.M., who was the first in his family to go to college and last year received a PhD in Education.
Fishbein added that this moment could serve as a wake-up call for community support around all of UNM’s Olympic sport programs.
“Let’s make this a starting point,” he said, “not an ending point.”
What remained unclear at Tuesday’s meeting was what each sport at UNM actually costs the university. Both the Board of Regents and the Journal, which has a pending Inspection of Public Record Act request for which a response was due last week, have asked for a sport-by-sport ledger of the costs and revenues for every sport at UNM. Such numbers are required annually by the NCAA.
Nuñez said the department can’t provide them yet as past budgets were compiled in a manner he and his staff can’t easily decipher in some areas, but is working on it. Athletics budgets approved by Executive Vice President David Harris and the Board of Regents each spring in the past decade didn’t break down costs by sport.
The AD said he will now start the process of determining how to go about making the $1.9 million in sports cuts. One factor will be that the university must remain Title IX compliant, ensuring that it is funding a sufficient number of women sports.
Regent Suzanne Quillen made clear that while the success stories of all the former student athletes who spoke on Tuesday were inspiring, nobody on the Board of Regents or at UNM seems to have a very basic understanding of what they should be using as criteria for judging sports.
“I’m not sure I understand what the metrics for success in athletics are,” said Quillen, stating that moving forward, everyone at UNM should be on the same page and “have some sort of criteria that we all agree upon.” Some possible metrics could be finances, win-loss record or academic success.
Quillen later said she has serious concern about how interested UNM students are in athletics, pointing out attendance at sporting events was much higher five years ago.
“I’m just wondering why and how we lost our students,” Quillen said, nudging Nuñez to focus on getting students back to games.