ALBUQUERQUE — It was a case of good news, bad news for the University of New Mexico athletics department.
The good? Fundraising efforts from the staff are at a five-year high. The push to find donors, sponsorships and gifts in kind is better now than at any point during athletic director Eddie Nuñez’s time with UNM.
The bad? Belt-tightening continues to be a way of life in Loboland.
“Our budget is challenged more than anybody else in the country, I think, at times,” Nuñez said during an hourlong round table discussion with local media Tuesday afternoon. “We’re so dependent on our self-generated funds.”
With an annual operating budget of approximately $33 million, UNM athletics continues to linger in the bottom half of Mountain West Conference members in total funding. Finding donors willing to crack the piggy bank during the pandemic hasn’t been easy, either, but Nuñez said he’s proud to say the department appears to have garnered a healthy relationship with its fan base.
“That was a big quest for me,” Nuñez said. “I wanted to do what I could to earn that trust back, and I think we have and our fundraising has shown [it].”
The biggest catch is a multimillion-dollar project that will rise from the void inside the football stadium. The school will formally break ground next week on a $4.3 million, 11,312-square foot training center inside University Stadium.
Attached the Tow Diehm Facility, it will extend to within 30 feet of the goalposts in the south end zone and house an expansive 7,000-square foot weight room and 1,538-foot aerobic training area.
It will take about a year and a half to finish with a target date of fall 2023 for its grand opening. The department welcomes visitors to the Maloof Administration Building outside the stadium with a series of architectural renderings that show a glass-walled building overlooking the field.
“As many of you who have dissected our budget probably more than I have, realize that we are significantly underfunded,” Nuñez said. “That started happening probably eight to 10 years ago, where they started cutting back in [the] budget of the teams and operations, and telling the coaches you’ve got to go fundraise more.”
An example was private donations to each program. At other schools, such donations simply padded the bottom line from annual budgets given to the respective budgets by school and state agencies. At UNM, the donations simply helped the department meet the bottom line — if that.
Nuñez shared a story of his first year at UNM. The women’s soccer team made it to the Mountain West Tournament but didn’t have the money in its budget to travel there.
“We have gotten the budgets in the travel and many of the areas closer to where they need to be,” Nuñez said, adding that the efforts of his staff to generate additional funding from outside the department has helped stabilize what had been a suffocating situation.
Athletics has also gotten help from the state in terms of capital outlay funds. Part of a $6.1 million package from the Legislature allows the department to install new lighting in the football stadium, replace the track at the soccer complex and complete infrastructure projects in The Pit.
On the wish list for the immediate future is funding to replace the video replay boards in the basketball arena.
Like any other athletics administrator, Nuñez has a vision board full of holy smokes ideas that are just beyond reach — for now. Among the largest is a nutrition center for all student athletes. It would keep athletes from every team fed and, as Nuñez pointed out, allow UNM to keep up with rival schools.
The big picture has much of the undeveloped school-owned land that extends as far south as Gibson Boulevard between University and Interstate 25 get developed with various projects. Same, too, would be a complete overhaul of the access point of Avenida Cesar Chavez and I-25, as well as Gibson and University.
Both, Nuñez said, are main entrance areas for recruits and fans to the south campus area that houses the athletic programs.
“We have to do a great job of making that corridor between the interstate and what we consider south campus a little more desirable,” he said. “Everything that’s happening in that intersection with crime, we have to be better. ... It’s not just us, you’re talking [Albuquerque] Isotopes, talking [New Mexico] United, talking [Professional Bull Riders], state high school.”
For now, the focus remains on the things UNM can control. Nuñez said he’s working on advance schedules for the football team for 2026 and beyond. The guarantee games against Power Five schools will continue, as will attempts to land home-and-home dates with other schools.
The Lobos are already under contract for such a deal with Oregon State, and Nuñez said he was close to finalizing a contract with BYU for games in 2024 and 2028 before it became a member of the Big 12.
“Everything’s still on the table,” he said. “We’re still having conversations with everybody. I don’t put anything off. Every institution, I try to have a dialogue.”