The downhill trajectory of revenue for the University of New Mexico athletics claimed a major victim Thursday.
The Lobos men’s and women’s ski team, which won the school’s first NCAA national championship in 2004, will be discontinued, UNM announced Thursday afternoon, saving the university about $600,000 per fiscal year.
Warning signs of such a move have been in the works for some time since the athletic department posted a $1.54 million deficit last fiscal year.
“This is a very difficult decision to come to,” athletic director Paul Krebs said in a news release. “The University of New Mexico, as well as our entire state, is in very tough and challenging economic times. This is truly a last resort for us. Taking away opportunities from our student-athletes is never good. The members of our ski teams have been tremendous student-athletes.”
Sports information director Frank Mercogliano said the team and coaches learned of the decision on Thursday about 1 p.m. None, he said, immediately felt up to discussing the decision with media.
The ski team, which has two paid coaches earning a combined $132,000 in base salary, has 25 members (14 men and 11 women). Scholarships for all will be honored through the years they would have been eligible to compete and UNM says it will help facilitate transfers for all team members who wish to to do so.
Skiing began at UNM as a varsity sport in 1970 and started as an NCAA-sanctioned sport in 1982. UNM skiing had 16 individual national champions.
But this past year there were just 32 NCAA sanctioned programs remaining for men’s and women’s ski teams and three more with only women’s teams. Only 12 of those are Division I schools like UNM, which now will have 20 varsity sports (the NCAA requires at least 16 for DI status).
The last time UNM cut sports was in 1999 (wrestling, men’s gymnastics and men’s swimming).
Mercogliano said he didn’t know exactly when the decision was made by Krebs and an athletics budget committee has utilized this fiscal year to try to cut costs department-wide after falling further in debt the past few seasons.
In August, when Krebs reported to the Board of Regents the athletics department’s $1.54 million shortfall for fiscal year 2015-16, the Journal asked if it was time to consider cutting any of UNM’s 22 sports, the second highest number in the Mountain West Conference.
“We’re not anywhere near that day today,” said now former UNM President Robert G. Frank.
Regent Marron Lee, who chairs the finance and facilities committee, was adamant about that point.
“No. We do not have too many sports,” Lee said. “… We do a really good job with athletics at the University of New Mexico and I can’t think of one sport where I’d say, ‘Well, you have to be on the chopping block because we have a deficit.'”
By October, when Krebs warned the Board’s finance and facilities committee of more financial troubles, it sounded like the chopping block was getting pulled out of the drawer.
“We’re at a point where some tough decisions are going to have to be made in athletics,” Krebs said. “… We’re either going to have to find additional help or revenue long term or we’re going to have to look at some very difficult decisions from an expense standpoint.
“I just don’t think the model can sustain itself. It’s unrealistic for us to continue to expect to generate more and more revenues from the fan base in this community based on the economy. So, whether it’s student fees or looking at the number of sports we offer, I think some things have to be reviewed because I think we’re going to be sitting here at this table every year unless there are some tough decisions made.”
In December, athletics warned it was headed toward a $400,000 projected 2017 fiscal year deficit.
At a February meeting, the Board of Regents President got much more specific.
“Regent (Robert) Doughty stated that in considering all options, they may be in a situation where they will have to consider cutting different athletic programs,” stated the minutes filed for the Feb. 14 meeting. “He wanted that statement on the table to be discussed so they aren’t reactionary and catching people by surprise. The discussion needs to occur now regarding cutting programs.”
On April 3, three days after Lobos basketball coach Craig Neal was fired and given a $1 million buyout to be paid over the next 24 months, UNM’s COO & CFO David Harris told the Journal of unspecified “austerity measures (Krebs) is about to announce.”
Anticipating the timing of the announcement being so close to the firing of Neal, and the buyout owed him, UNM included in its emailed announcement of the ski team’s demise a question and answer sheet, that included addressing the Neal situation.
“Regardless of the buyout for men’s basketball coach Craig Neal, this decision would have been made,” that form stated.
UNM also said there are no plans to cut any other sports and no indication a last-minute reprieve or saving of skiing can occur.
UNM skiing timeline
1970: Skiing moves from club status to varsity status at UNM
1982: UNM becomes an NCAA-sanctioned program
2004: The Lobos win the school’s first NCAA team title in any sport
2007: George Brooks, the only coach in program history, retires; assistant Fredrik Landstedt is promoted to head coach
2017: UNM cuts the program