Alibi V.27 No.33 • Aug 16-22, 2018 

Feature

Everyone is a Lobo, Woof, Woof, Woof

Athletics department dishes abject failure amidst potential success

Dreamstyle Stadium at the University of New Mexico
Dreamstyle Stadium at the University of New Mexico
Greetings, sports fans!

Before proceeding, you may well ask why Weekly Alibi—a respected news gathering organization, but also a known repository of freaks and misfit toys—is a peculiarly local part of the college sports scene this week, as part of our Back to School issue.

Whilst considering that trick of the tail, you might as well ask yourself the question that we are asking ourselves here in the news room. Why is the state’s Attorney General—a dude mostly concerned with the prosecution of a plethora of very serious crimes haunting the Land of Enchantment—making a guest appearance in wholesome, newspaper-of-record sports pages, threatening “enforcement action,” thereby offering his version of a solution to the age-old problem of Lobo athletics?

Hector Balderas—ambition clearly trailing his appearance in this case as the election season comes out of its summer hibernation—jumped into the sportsball fray late last week, telling UNM to get its act together, to reconsider the cruel amputations it’s made to a controversial arm of our own “Harvard on the Rio Grande.”

Hector Balderas—ambition clearly trailing his appearance in this case as the election season comes out of its summer hibernation—jumped into the sportsball fray late last week, telling UNM to get its act together, to reconsider the cruel amputations it’s made to a controversial arm of our own “Harvard on the Rio Grande.”

Balderas’ passionate involvement seems, on the surface, to be somewhat dramatic and out of place. But given the color the UNM athletic department has offered the surrounding community for nigh on 50 years, it really comes as no surprise. The athletic department at UNM has been nursing a reported $4.7 million deficit over the past 10 years and many in the community say the AG is right to be concerned about the shape of things at a university that provided diplomas to many of our state’s intelligentsia, artistic and political classes.

Balderas says UNM violated the tenets of our state’s open meeting act—a building block of democratic governance that should surely raise any law enforcer’s eyebrows in these times of demagoguery and danger—in actions that accompanied a meeting where four sports—men’s soccer, men and women’s skiing and beach volleyball—were chosen to be surgically removed from the university’s corpus come next season.

2018 football practice begins
2018 football practice begins
Eric Williams Photography

The question remains: Did the Board of Regents and the new President of the University go rogue and act Trumpian, essentially making a wide-ranging decision without making such clear in their published agenda, without inviting members of the community to chime in on a problem that has touched us all, one way or another?

Men’s soccer has only had one losing season under Feishbein’s tenure, have won 9 division championships and been to the big dance 12 times—reaching the final four in 2013—during those storied years. All of these factors could be readily and successfully used to market an up-and-coming sport.

By this weekend’s end, it still wasn’t totally clear what was going to happen next. A local attorney filed a lawsuit on his own, reported one teevee news outlet, lest the community suffer more under the weight of UNM’s alleged malfeasance.

The institution that is the University of New Mexico continued to offer entreaties of “no comment” when asked about Balderas’ statements. They did however publish an agenda for their next meeting. A special meeting of the UNM board of Regents will take place at 1pm inside the Student Union Building on Friday, Aug. 17. A public comment period will be followed by a presentation on a plan to discontinue the sports UNM intends to cut. A vote on the proposal will most certainly follow.

Given all that background chatter, it’s been difficult to ascertain the value of or the stakes involved in the arguments for and against sportsball at UNM. In order to bring some clarity to the issue—and so help divine whether this issue is really of relevance to the greater community—we did some research. Here’s what we know so far, and what you should know too, as summer lapses into fall, as classes commence and as all sorts of balls start to get thrown around again.

Holy Hoops

The University of New Mexico men’s basketball team continues to generate more revenue than football, though the football program has been allocated nearly three times as much, on a yearly basis, in University budgets going back to 2015.

This coming year will be no different, but with more cautious financial projections leading the way. Though, overall, the University is aware of a decline in revenue from all of its 22 NCAA Division I varsity sports, current statistical research done by the athletic department projects that the pigskin players will only generate $1.2 million in ticket sales, whereas the hoopsters stand to gain $3.8 million, a figure that is just slightly more than the $3.65 million the program took in last year in ticket sales.

football practice
Eric Williams Photography
Besides beating ’em at the box office, the Lobo hoops squads—the Lobo women’s hoopsters made nearly $400k last year—have recently and consistently had winning, national-attention-drawing, NCAA-hopes-type notice.

Winning seasons have never been out of reach for UNM basketball, but the program has suffered its share of controversy and financial malfeasance over the years. The grand debacle involving the nationally ranked Lobos, a thrown game at Cal-State Fullerton and a coach nicknamed “Stormin’ Norman” comes to mind.

The men’s program lost the Mountain West Championship game in a nail-biter to San Diego State this past March, smashing up an invitation to the big game or other big game (the NIT, amigos!) after a comeback season that many thought would be a total loss. Obviously there’s room for improvement, but room for hope too. The latter leads to fan excitement, a thing which can drive ticket sales and help drown the deficit the athletic department is carrying around like an albatross.

Meanwhile and most significantly, the women’s hoop team actually made post-season tourney play last year, and were successful in the Mountain West Tournament and the Women’s NIT before getting offed by Texas Christian in the third round. This year should be a continuance of that excellence; both squads are focused on success and not constant rebuilding, one of the problems that continues to haunt Lobo Football.

The Pigskin Problem

Let’s admit the main fact. UNM football is problematic. It costs more than 19 of its fellow teams combined. The team has a history of controversy and poor performance.

Planning defensive strategies
Planning defensive strategies
Eric Williams Photography
The lack of community confidence in our flagship university’s main athletic program is reflected in lackluster, even plunging season ticket sales. This weekend, the state’s previously mentioned daily of record reported that sales are behind last year’s tally, indications are that a 3-9 season in 2017 may have something to do with the downturn. In a cruel, cyclic twist, overblown and never-met football ticket sales projections from previous seasons are partially responsible for the $1.47 million in debt the program has generated in three years.

Sportwriters have already written off the team’s prospects for 2018. Ironically, the Albuquerque Journal reported that head football coach Bob Davie gets all kinds of lucre for increases in attendance based on ticket sales. He already makes almost $500 thousand per year. And ultimately, Division I universities like UNM have to have both football and basketball programs in place to participate in conference play.

Sports watchers all over the nation say the decline of football is predictable as the sport’s main audience ages, knowledge of the danger to players mounts and spectators engage more choices, such as soccer.

Fútbol as the Future

The Mountain West Conference does not support men’s soccer teams. That’s an important fact to reflect upon as citizens look for reasons that a growing and potentially profitable collegiate athletic enterprise is scheduled to be cut from the university roster after this coming season.

In stark contrast to the men’s football program, the men’s soccer program, coached by Jeremy Fishbein for more than 17 years, has been called a “model of consistency” and is nationally respected. Men’s soccer has only had one losing season under Feishbein’s tenure, have won 9 division championships and been to the big dance 12 times—reaching the final four in 2013—during those storied years. All of these factors could be readily and successfully used to market an up-and-coming sport.

Eric Williams Photography

Soccer represents a sea change in the way athleticism is practiced at the collegiate level. Mainly it is a step away from the skull-crushing, brain-damage rendering model that permeates the practice of football. The type of grace, fine motor skills and decision-making each player on the field makes is in stark contrast to the brutal violence of football. The youth of the America seem to get this: Soccer is on track to be the third most popular spectator sport in this nation. Only 1 percent of American adults over 55 dig soccer, but for sportsball enthusiasts 18 to 34, soccer is already on top.

Lessons Learned

Cutting the potentially very lucrative men’s soccer program will initially save the athletic department about $600 thousand per year, taxpayer-generated funds that will be used to ameliorate the unseemly deficit caused by shortsightedness and quite possibly, the same hyper male hubris that is a hallmark of an obsolete and dangerous sport. Just as predictably though, football at UNM will no doubt continue, despite flagging interest, lost revenue and potentially more fiscal abuses.

But, the case for straightening out the finances at the UNM athletics department should be a priority for the new president, Garnett Stokes. And a corollary to the endeavor must include a reevaluation of the value of each sport being kept as well as those being eliminated. In plain talk, it may come down to answering the perennial question of that disappointed Lobo football fans ask year after year. How much is too much disappointment for a community to bear?

Upon reflection, both Balderas and the editorial board here at Weekly Alibi have reason to speak their piece and to ask that the decisions made by the board of regents be revisited and reviewed in the light of day. We’re all Lobos in this matter. Woof, woof, woof. Wherever the true path of the institution lies and no matter how the game is played, it should be approachable and transparent—clear of the debris and penalties encouraged by vague encounters and secretive meetings.

Ultimately the fact that the football program has been a public relations disaster—as well as a financial burden—these many years should weigh heavily on the university administration’s vote and its conscience, too; in comparison sports like soccer, down hill skiing and even beach volleyball seem wholesome and in tune with community values.