So you’re Eddie Nuñez and, according to the calendar on your smartphone, you’ve got four weeks to decide what teams under your charge get the ax.
It’s not even close to an easy decision, but when you’re the athletic director of the University of New Mexico’s cash-hemorrhaging athletic department, it’s just a hard truth to the life you’ve inherited; inherited because he wasn’t the architect of a department that finds itself at the wrong end of a multimillion dollar deficit following years of questionable management and accounting practices.
Last week, Nuñez sat down with a select few members of the local media to discuss the university’s latest headache, it’s growing issue with Title IX compliance. During the controlled setting of his roundtable talk, he was asked several times about following through on UNM President Garnett Stokes’ directive to cut teams by June 30 to help balance the books.
Truth is, his job of deciding what to do next got a whole lot easier with the 39-page report issued by an independent consultant hired to analyze the school’s Title IX situation. That report raised a major red flag when it said UNM has the equivalent of 145 more athletic opportunities for men than it does women and that closing that gap with immediate actionable steps is required to keep the federal government from breathing down the department’s neck for noncompliance.
The first? Add women’s sports.
Ain’t gonna happen, not in the current climate where a bloated 22-team department can no longer sustain itself with an annual budget dipped in more red ink than a Lobo poster.
Second? Roster management.
In other words, keep every team alive but drastically cut scholarship opportunities and roster spots for men but pad them for most of the women’s. Doing so helps close the gap but doesn’t fix the problem. It also threatens to dramatically reduce the quality of talent a men’s team can attract since fewer spots means a diminished product.
The third? Eliminate men’s sports.
Cutting football is a rallying cry among some observers, but c’mon, get serious. UNM can’t afford to drop football. Doing so means saying goodbye to the Mountain West Conference and hello to, what, the WAC? The West Coast? The Summit League?
Hate or love it, football is the glue that sticks New Mexico to one of the country’s pre-eminent mid-major conferences, and trying to rationally argue that it could become the next Gonzaga by canning the sport and focusing on hoops is foolhardy.
UNM will not cut football. It also won’t reduce roster sizes for it or men’s basketball. When those sports do well at the turnstiles and on the playing front, they’re both healthy enough to support everyone else. That’s the focus moving forward.
That leaves just eight sports on the chopping block: Soccer, golf, skiing, cross-country, indoor track, outdoor track, baseball and tennis. The need to get spending under control — Stokes wants a savings of $1.9 million annually to start — and reach the magic number of 145 opportunities for Title IX, the only way to get there is to take a monstrous, heavy-handed swing at multiple sports.
The low-hanging fruit that is everyone’s favorite target (skiing) only cuts
13 roster spots and accompanied funding. To make a dent, something big needs to go. By participation numbers, football (110) is nearly three times as big as the next largest (indoor track, 41). Outdoor track has 39, baseball 36 and soccer 25.
Call it a gut feeling, but baseball and to a lesser extent, soccer, feel safe. Until this season, the baseball team has been one of the top programs in the region, while soccer, with its expensive travel needs in Conference USA, has long been a national player.
To make ends meet and get Title IX under control, the reasonable assumption is that men’s indoor and outdoor track (or maybe just one) are in the cross-hairs, as is skiing and perhaps something smaller, like golf or even tennis.
Eliminating track and skiing would leave UNM with just seven men’s sports, but it would go a long way toward getting Title IX back in line while saving a little money in the interim.
It’s easily one of the hardest decisions Nuñez will ever make in his career.
Choosing which sports get mothballed in the name of the almighty dollar (and fending off the government) is something only he can do.
The guess here? That rumbling sound you hear is a huge sport rich in tradition and deep with its roster getting pushed out of the way.
Only four weeks before we all find out.
Will Webber’s commentary about local sports appears every weekend in The New Mexican. Contact him at 505-986-3060, email@example.com or through Twitter @SportsScribe505.