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Hey, lawmakers: UNM cannot afford your offer to restore dropped teams

January 27, 2019

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the University of New Mexico is going to need a little more than a legislative Band-Aid to fix this particular severed artery.

While House Bill 320 is a generous offer from state lawmakers to extend the life of men’s soccer, skiing and beach volleyball at UNM, it’s not even close to what’s needed to keep them going long into the future. House Democrats proposed a bill last week to give $2 million to the athletics department in 2020 to keep the teams the school eliminated last year.

That’s not even half of what some believe it will take to get UNM to even listen. It’s not greed standing in the way; it’s reality. To save the teams in question, it will take more than a one-time payout that fails to meet the basic requirements.

Drowning in millions of dollars’ worth of red numbers, the athletic department followed the directive of UNM President Garnett Stokes and axed five teams last year as part of an extensive cost-cutting measure designed to balance future budgets and stem the tide as the result of financial mismanagement.

One of those teams, women’s diving, was rescued from the scrap heap by the board of regents, leaving the other four to play out the 2018-19 school year knowing it was their last.

Life without them saves roughly

$1 million annually, about half of the figure Stokes wanted the department to trim from its yearly budget.

I’m gonna go even further out on the limb and suggest that HB 320 is noble and endearing in its intention, but woefully short in hitting its mark — and misses the larger point altogether. It’s a temporary fix to an issue that needs a sustainable cash infusion over several years rather than a one-time contribution that requires an annual renewal from a state not exactly known for its cash overflow.

Saving men’s soccer means saving at least one women’s team, probably beach volleyball. Fair enough. Title IX creates fair and equitable opportunities for both genders, and no one’s debating that.

For argument’s sake, let’s pull beach volleyball back from extinction. The operating cost is minimal compared to big-budget programs of football and basketball, so that’s not an issue. The problem lies in facilities. The $2 million allocated for 2019-20 would be spent mostly on building an on-campus site.

Toss in the overhead, and the debt gets bigger, not better.

So what happens when the one-time payment dries up in 2021? A department already hemorrhaging cash is forced to keep treading water — and, really, it’s not even doing that — without the promise of sustained support from the politicians who bailed them out.

Does the money come from football? The department has already instituted the so-called big money games; road trips to Power Five schools like Notre Dame, USC and Mississippi State over the next decade that promise seven-figure appearance payouts and laughable blowout losses. In college football parlance, it’s the little guy standing on the street corner asking for a few bucks in exchange for a kick in the teeth.

The department even used some of its future payouts from games against LSU and Texas A&M to balance last year’s budget. The football team will get $1.1 million from its visit to Notre Dame in September, money that will help cover costs elsewhere.

Bottom line, UNM doesn’t need handouts and it doesn’t need one-time allocations. It certainly doesn’t need politicians sending a check and making UNM look like the bad guy when it’s forced to say it isn’t enough. The university was dealing with a financial crisis in athletics and was forced to make the tough decisions everyone was talking about but no one was willing to make. Now the deed is done, and it’s time to move on.

If the state wants to help, the proof should come in the form of a sustained cash flow for the foreseeable future and not a Band-Aid to last through the next election.

Will Webber’s sports commentary appears periodically in this section. He’s been covering New Mexico sports for a quarter-century, focusing mostly on preps and college. To reach him, call 505-986-3060 or email him at wwebber@sfnewmexican.com.

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