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Some question why Lobo football escaped scrutiny during sports cuts

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Cleveland Storm soccer player Mariano Barreras wore the aqua T-shirt representing his high school’s team colors Thursday on a University of New Mexico campus full of cherry and silver gear.

If the shirt didn’t make him stick out enough, the large white poster he held high during a four-hour Board of Regents meeting certainly got some attention.

“Can we stay if we call it futbol?” the sign read.

The message about football was clear, even if it was one that surprisingly wasn’t broached much during an hourslong meeting called to vote on whether to eliminate men’s soccer and three other sports from UNM’s roster. Regents eventually voted 6-0 to cut the sports.

Among the reasons for the cuts: the continued financial struggles of the athletics department.

But at least one person wondered how is it that men’s soccer and the other sports could be cut to save an estimated $1.1 million annually when the university reported the football program, which has seen dwindling attendance and a less-than-stellar record over the past decade, spent $8.3 million during the fiscal year that ended June 30?

Addressing Eddie Nuñez, UNM’s athletic director, regent Suzanne Quillen said, “One of our speakers said we’re not talking about the white elephant in the room. So I have to ask you, Eddie, about football. … Why aren’t we talking about football?”

The Mountain West Conference requires all member universities to field four sports: football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball and volleyball.

The response of the first-year athletic director tasked with cutting sports to deal with problems that pre-dated his move to New Mexico last fall wasn’t long on specific savings, but he assured her that cuts in the football program will be made.

“We are talking about football internally,” Nuñez said.

He noted that some cuts could include football players not getting as many meals as in the past, changes in travel policy and a reduction in recruiting trips by coaches.

“Football, as well as every other sport, is going to be held to the same accountability when it comes to managing their budgets,” Nuñez said.

Another cost-saving change is stopping the practice of having players stay in a local hotel the night before home games, something the men’s basketball team stopped doing two years ago and something no other sport at UNM is known to have done in the past.

According to documents reviewed by the Journal through an Inspection of Public Records Act request, the Lobo football team spent between $20,353 and $24,996 in annual home hotel costs between the 2014 and 2016 seasons.

UNM’s report on cost-saving measures also says the team will reduce by the 2019-20 season its total number of participants from 116 (85 on scholarship) to 113 (85 on scholarship) to help with Title IX issues.

The men’s soccer team has 29 participants. The ski team has 20 total participants (12 men, eight women) and the beach volleyball team being cut has 17 participants, about half of whom play on the indoor volleyball team, as well.

Lobo men’s basketball, the only sport at UNM the school reports as making a profit annually, had the second-highest expense total this past season at $4.2 million. It saw no roster cuts.

Steve Kramer, a real estate broker in Albuquerque and former Lobo soccer player, said he believes Nuñez and first-year UNM President Garnett Stokes came in and viewed football and men’s basketball as being “untouchable.”

“They believe that Albuquerque must be a football town like most other places that they’ve been,” Kramer said. “Well, they’re wrong. … I urge the regents to stop bowing down to the concept that football is untouchable. I urge the regents to look at across-the-board budget reductions in all sports to balance the budget.”

Baseball vs. Soccer

The recent Title IX assessment that recommended a men’s sport with a large roster be cut for UNM to get into compliance with the federal gender equity mandate said UNM should look at either baseball or soccer.

Nuñez said he chose soccer for a number of reasons, including the fact that it plays in Conference-USA and not the Mountain West, where most other UNM sports compete.

“When you look across the board, our first fundamental principals were to make sure that we were trying figure out financial (decisions), our compliance with Title IX (implications) and ultimately to be in alignment with the Mountain West,” Nuñez said. “And as we looked at all these different factors, if baseball was here today, you’d have the same support from their group (as soccer had). There’s no right or wrong reason as far as one over another.”

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