Lobos athletic director expecting 8% cut to finances

Four months ago, Eddie Nuñez was feeling confident enough to go on the record and say the University of New Mexico's Athletics Department was on track for long-term financial stability.

Four months ago, Eddie Nuñez was feeling confident enough to go on the record and say the University of New Mexico's Athletics Department was on track for long-term financial stability.

Debts were being paid, budgets were being met, lucrative deals were in place for multimedia rights and TV broadcasts, and the shoddy accounting practices of UNM's past seemed to be fading in the rearview mirror.

Just a few days ago, UNM's sports boss was singing a far different tune.

Hired three years ago to pull the department out of a financial and public relations nightmare inherited from his predecessors, Nuñez said last week he is bracing for significant financial cuts during a board of regents meeting Tuesday.

The athletic department incurred a 6 percent cut to its Research and Public Service Projects budget, which amounts to a $280,000 hit from state appropriations. A deeper cut will come from the university itself, with regents expected to slice an additional 8 percent.

"It's going to be pretty significant cuts that we're trying to do on top of the unknown if I'm not going to have to get to generate a single penny," Nuñez said.

UNM's faculty and staff will not be given scheduled raises. The grim outlook for the university is the direct result of a pandemic that is threatening nearly every aspect of how the school conducts business. It still has not been determined whether students will be allowed back on campus when the fall semester begins next month.

A hybrid class schedule that combines on-campus and online distance learning is the most likely scenario, but the main concern right now for Nuñez is the elephant in the room: college football.

If the Mountain West Conference follows suit with the Pac-12 and Big Ten in canceling nonconference games to avoid the spread of COVID-19, every scenario regarding testing and player safety has to be examined.

"If we are going to move forward with all fall sports," Nuñez said, "we have to have something we all feel confident in, from the medical side to health and safety of our student-athletes that's taken into account. That's really what we've been spending the majority of our time on."

If the football season is wiped out, UNM is not unlike any NCAA Division I program. It stands to lose millions, including a combined payout of $1.95 million from nonconference games at USC and Mississippi State in September, as well as a significant portion of the estimated $3.5 million to $4 million that every Mountain West school is expecting from its new multiyear TV deal with Fox and CBS.

Toss in the losses to the MWC's share of the College Football Playoff and the game-day revenue from hosting half a dozen home dates, and it's enough to create serious worry.

"We've got a lot of different scenarios," Nuñez said. "If we don't have football, if we don't have basketball, if we don't have both. If we don't have concessions, parking, fans; if we don't have anything, then what do I need to do for a department to try to make my budget not be basically a killer? It might entail some drastic decisions."

Does that mean cutting more team sports, which Nuñez signed off on two years ago with the elimination of men's soccer, skiing and beach volleyball?

"I will say, if we hadn't done it then, we would definitely be doing it now," he said.

UNM has begun renting its facilities to stem the tide. Nuñez said his department receives $5,000 to $7,000 per match from the New Mexico United for use of the UNM Track and Soccer Complex.

What the lack of funding will mean in the immediate future remains to be seen. Nuñez said he has been preparing for every scenario, but until a decision is made on college sports in the fall, it's impossible to speculate on what impact it will have.

Not all the news has been bad, though.

Work on the expansion of baseball's Santa Ana Star Field is moving forward. Bleachers that will nearly triple the seating capacity by extending space to each dugout will start to be installed this week while other smaller projects around the department have already been undertaken.

It's one side effect to the pandemic that has actually proven beneficial.

"We've been able to get ahead in some areas because they're projects that we had teed up, just ready to go," Nuñez said.

An added bonus came a few days ago when UNM booster Brook Watson created an endowment for the men's basketball team in hopes of having it one day fund the program. A similar endeavor has been in place for more than 20 years at the University of North Carolina, allowing the endowment to grow to the point where it covers the operational costs of the program.

"It's no secret that UNM athletics struggles financially each year," Watson said. "You've got UNM coaches who are trying to remain competitive with Power Five schools with a quarter of their budget."

Lobos basketball head coach Paul Weir said New Mexico state had an endowment launched 40 years ago by former coach Lou Henson to offset recruiting costs. The benefit of having one last season would have helped UNM better fund its trip to Brooklyn, New York, for a tournament in December, as well as supplement the recruiting effort to replace five outgoing regulars.

"I was shocked when I got here and learned we'd never had one," Weir said.

"This is one of those things where, if we get enough money in there and we do it right, it will pay dividends back to the program year after year," Nuñez said.

While there is nothing Nuñez or anyone can do to hold back the financial cuts due to the coronavirus shutdown, Watson suggested that forward thinking may be the only way through this. He said the cycle of financial donations generated by UNM booster clubs like the Lobo Club and Sixth Man Club need to be altered slightly if men's basketball aspires to be financially competitive with the national programs. At present, only UNM's tennis program has something similar.

"Long-term thinking investment is the only way you break this perpetual cycle," Watson said, adding, "This will take time to build, but if done right, it's going to have a lasting impact on the men's basketball program and level the financial playing field in college athletics."

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