You know the clip of the runner crossing the finish line with someone else helping him across?
Of course you do. YouTube is loaded with videos of just such a thing. An Olympian getting his dad’s shoulder to lean on here, a female marathoner getting a boost from a competitor there.
They’re inspirational, uplifting and often memorable. What sports is all about.
They’re also hollow because, really, what good is claiming victory when it took the help of someone else to get it? The true essence of competition is completing the task at hand within the confines of the rules.
The University of New Mexico’s athletic department claiming victory by balancing its budget feels a lot like that. Technically no rules were violated, but to have the department puff out its chest for finishing in the black this past fiscal year should come with a big, fat asterisk.
UNM had a cash infusion of well over a million dollars to make ends meet and finish with a positive net balance of $116,546. For a department that is still reeling from the public relations nightmare that involved cutting sports, it’s a nice way to stand before the cynics and point to a sign of progress.
But let’s get real for just a minute. Minus the $1.35 million the department got from cash subsidies and land transfers from the main campus, the red ink would be making a huge mess of the so-called victory parade.
If you think things will get better in fiscal year 2020, you’re dreaming. Athletic director Eddie Nuñez told the Board of Regents’ Finance and Facilities Committee that another cash transfer will be needed to balance the books this time next year. It’s needed, he said, to cover the unforeseen expenses no one can forecast.
None of this is meant to diminish the hard work being done behind the scenes within athletics. Everyone can agree that the work by regime of former AD Paul Krebs was a textbook example of bad accounting practices. What Nuñez and his staff inherited was a dumpster fire and no means to put it out.
Nuñez deserves a lot of credit for being the fall guy. He has had to tighten the belt more than he’d like to. He has similarly been the punching bag for the coaching staff, telling them that the wild, Wild West days of moving money around to cover bad expenses is over.
Coaches have had to spend about one-third of their time fundraising for their teams while cutting costs on everything from travel to office supplies.
Nuñez has become the attentive beancounter who constantly gets grilled in the public for mothballing a wildly popular men’s soccer program and trying to find answers for his ongoing Title IX headache. He’s also had to deal with the downward spiral of attendance at football and men’s basketball games.
The bright side is that, yes, he did manage to balance the budget despite the fact that it’s nothing more than a paper victory; smoke and mirrors, rabbit out of the hat, borrowing stuff from that pile to make his look bigger.
On paper, the coming year should be better.
The football team’s lagging attendance will surely get a boost by the home game against New Mexico State, a 30,000-fan night that could well allow the Lobos to average more than 20,000 for the season.
The men’s basketball team should be better, which should help average attendance climb back over 12,500. The women’s team looks to be a potential top 25 club, so it’s reasonable to expect their attendance numbers will keep climbing.
What that means to the bottom line is anyone’s guess. It’s a crapshoot to think the athletic department’s new multimedia rights deal with Outfront Media will produce a profit in the first year. Same too for the department’s deal with its new ticketing and marketing partner, Paciolan. It’s simply too early to predict a positive net return on either venture.
Go ahead and claim victory for using black ink on the bottom line of the annual budget, UNM, even if it did require some help from entities outside of sports. No matter how you slice it, though, the public perception is still very much against you.
But there’s always next year.
Will Webber writes an opinion column about sports in New Mexico. Contact Webber at 505-603-9467 or firstname.lastname@example.org.