The men’s and women’s nordic and alpine ski teams at the University of New Mexico (UNM) will be defunded and cease to exist by the end of June, university administrators announced Thursday afternoon. While the death of the ski team is being presented as a fait accompli by the UNM athletic department, ski team advocates are nonetheless rallying support and preparing to make their case for continued funding to the Board of Regents. The threatened cut to another western ski program comes six months after UNM’s neighbor far to the north, the University of Alaska, had to rely on a groundswell of community support to reverse an announced ax to its ski program.
Last month the local paper, the Albuquerque Journal, reported that legislators were running into the final days of the session in their attempt to balance the state’s budget “amid a fiscal crisis.” On Monday of this week it reported on New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez’s symbolic move to veto all funding for public colleges and universities for the next fiscal year. On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that state legislators were preparing to sue the governor over this action, “amid an unrelenting standoff … over how to shore up state finances.”
Also Thursday, UNM officials announced that the school would no longer sponsor men’s and women’s skiing. “The decision will save the department approximately $600,000 per year in operating budget, scholarships and salaries,” the school wrote in a press release.
In round numbers, the budget for the UNM athletic department was roughly $32 million in the previous fiscal year.
The UNM athletic department recorded a deficit of $1.54 million for the fiscal year that ended in June 2016, the Albuquerque Journal reported last summer. “According to a report to University regents,” the Journal wrote, “UNM fell short of ticket revenue projections by $975,000 and missed fundraising goals by $200,000.”
In the summer 2016 article, Vice President for Athletics Paul Krebs “made it clear it doesn’t mean there are bills not being paid or sports being cut.”
At that time, UNM Regent Marron Lee told the Journal that she was adamant that sports would not be cut in response to the budget deficit.
“No. We do not have too many sports,” the Journal article quotes her as saying. “We do a really good job with athletics at the University of New Mexico and I can’t think of one sport where I’d say, ‘Well, you have to be on the chopping block because we have a deficit.’”
So why was skiing the only sport cut now after all? Here’s what an FAQ sheet from the UNM athletic department has to say:
“Why skiing as opposed to a different sport? There are now less than 35 ski programs in the country that compete in the NCAA, and several of those do not compete full squads. There are just six other NCAA programs in the West, and when you look at the costs associated with skiing such as travel, insurance for international student-athletes, equipment and the fact that we practice three hours away, skiing made the most fiscal sense for our department.”
The ski team’s perspective
Head Coach Fredrik Landstedt is unconvinced. “They’re justifying it partly because of the budget,” Landstedt told FasterSkier in a Thursday phone call, “because skiing has fewer schools [sponsoring it], 34 sponsored institutions right now with skiing; there’s a few more if you count men’s and women’s. … But in my opinion, it doesn’t really matter how many schools that sponsor your sport, if you want to be on the top. I wouldn’t really care if there were 200 more ski teams out there that had crappy teams; it wouldn’t hurt me any. I don’t even understand the justification based on the number of sports. I mean, we’re competing right at the top.”
(UNM sports information director Frank Mercogliano told the Albuquerque Journal that no one from the ski team “immediately felt up to discussing the decision with media.” Landstedt was more than willing to speak when cold-called on Thursday afternoon.)
Landstedt is objectively correct that the UNM ski team operates at a high level within American collegiate skiing. The team won a national championship in 2004, the school’s first NCAA team title in any sport. They were seventh at NCAA Championships this year – “but that’s one of our worst places,” Landstedt said of a program that consistently places even higher than that.
Alluding to the threatened cut to the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) ski team last fall, Landstedt said, of a team that has enjoyed solid results but that has historically lagged behind UNM at the top of the results sheet, “This will definitely hurt collegiate skiing. Because now, you know, Alaska Anchorage is one of the top programs, but they haven’t been even close to as successful as we’ve been as far as being up on the podium. And now you’re cutting one of the top programs in the country … and that means, what program is safe out there? ADs everywhere can point to the fact that they cut us – we were national champions.”
For UAA head nordic coach Andrew Kastning, “the pain from our recent struggle [over being defunded] is still fresh,” he wrote to FasterSkier. “So I know what they’re feeling and hurt for them as well.”
Kastning continued, looking back on his experience at UAA, “One of the reasons we got saved is because we got a lot of vocal support from [the] ski community which recognizes the importance and uniqueness of US college skiing and how it can raise the level of competition for every skiing region. It’s too early to tell what this means for college skiing, but it’s not good, and we all need to stand together and fight for the Lobos just as hard as we yelled and screamed for the Seawolves.”
(Current actions to support the UNM ski team are discussed at the end of this article.)
Back in Albuquerque, Landstedt is justifiably proud of his program. He cites the current 3.92 GPA of the women’s ski team, and 3.6 GPA for the men, as evidence for his claim that skiing has “always been the top academic program” at UNM.
Plus “We’ve always been the top athletic program,” Landstedt adds. “We have 13 NCAA trophies; there are only three more at UNM, total, for all the other sports. And we have 17 individual NCAA champions. So athletically we have traditionally by far been the best program [at UNM].”
Landstedt continues, “And on top of that, the ski team has always covered its budget here, so we never put anything to the deficit. We don’t have facilities that they have to pay for at UNM. The only cost as far as facilities is that the State of New Mexico has provided us with two vans, that’s it for 30 years. … So you’re showing poor judgment when you’re cutting the program that really typifies the excellence of being a student-athlete, a top student-athlete at the top level.”
The skiers’ perspective
One such student-athlete is Patrick Brachner, a senior alpine skier from Austria. Brachner spoke candidly with FasterSkier about how the athletes found out the news and the current mood of the team.
“For us, this decision came absolutely out of nowhere,” Brachner wrote to FasterSkier earlier today. “We knew that the Athletic Department was reporting a deficit, but it was always communicated that no teams will be dropped. Also, the Ski Team has not increased its spending since 2003 and we raised about $50,000 every year from supporters to support our budget. If there is a certain amount allocated from the Athletic Department for skiing, and our coaches never exceeded this budget, why would there be any reason to cut this program, although other programs have continuously exceeded their spending.”
“It was a total shock” to learn yesterday that the program was being cut, Brachner continued. “Most of my teammates declared majors, signed up for classes the day before, I was talking to new recruits about their living situation for next year only hours before we got dropped.”
The mood within the team “wasn’t great” on Thursday, Brachner noted. But he added that, “if anything, this has just put us closer together and sparked our fighting spirit. It is amazing to see all the support of other UNM Alumns, and even Alumns of other colleges with a skiing program. People have to understand how great of a job the UNM Ski Team does in shaping people for the rest of their lives.”
Finally, Brachner provided a dose of realism regarding the options for current athletes. While UNM pledged either to honor current scholarships through graduation or to help skiers transfer to another institution, Brachner wrote that “It’s too late to transfer to other ski teams; spots are taken.”
(Frank Mercogliano, an assistant athletic director of communications at UNM, had a far less pessimistic view of current athletes’ options. “I don’t think that’s correct” that it’s already too late to transfer somewhere else, Mercogliano told FasterSkier in a Friday phone call. “Because we’ve got other schools that have basically had us on speed-dial, calling, asking about kids. … There’s room; kids will be able to transfer and go to schools, and be able to get scholarships. I mean, they’re going to make room. We have some kids that are – we have a lot of podium kids coming back here, both in Nordic and in Alpine. There’s room – trust me, they’ll find – the Utahs, and the Colorados, and the Denvers, and even the New Hampshires and the Vermonts and the Montana States and the Alaska Anchorages of the world – they’ll find room. They’re going to find room for kids that can win podiums on the circuit. They’ll do that.”)
And as for those students who wish to remain at UNM, on scholarship and without skiing? “In order to keep their scholarships here,” the senior Brachner wrote of his current teammates potentially still in Albuquerque next year, “they would need to work 10h for free per week for the Athletic Department, the institution that kicked them out.”
Funding issues and the men’s basketball coach
Hanging over any current discussion of funding for the UNM athletic department is the prominent and public fact that the school recently paid one million dollars to buy out the contract of men’s basketball head coach Craig Neal, a decision that occurred on March 31. (Neal would have been owed an additional $300,000 if he had been fired during the current contract year, which began on April 1.)
At best, it may be said to be bad optics for the athletic department to pay out a $1 million buyout on March 31, then announce on April 13 that a sport is being eliminated due to lack of funding and the need to save $600,000. (Although Landstedt suggests that the actual savings to UNM would be closer to $450,000.) At worst, ski-team members are beyond skeptical.
“The economy in New Mexico is poor,” Landstedt acknowledged. “They’re still trying to work out the state budget, the university has said it has a budget deficit, and the athletic department has a budget deficit. But the athletic department’s deficit is in big part because they signed very poor contracts with the basketball coach and have to pay them million-dollar buyouts, and so forth.”
He continued, “The economy is tough, tough decisions have to be made, but I believe there are other ways to cut or to increase your budget than by cutting our program out. That said, I believe it’s not the main reason for the predicament UNM Athletics are in; it’s because of the management or the current leadership of athletics.”
Brachner, the current alpine skier, similarly pulled no punches in contrasting the Neal buyout with the recent news about defunding the ski program.
In the introduction to an online petition in support of the ski team, Brachner wrote, “After firing UNM’s basketball coach earlier this month, UNM’s Athletic Director Paul Krebs has decided to discontinue the Women’s and Men’s Skiing program, a program that has deep roots not only within the University, but throughout the entire state. To put things in perspective, only the replacement of UNM’s basketball coach during his existing contract will cost the athletic department far more than the yearly budget of Women’s and Men’s skiing combined. This example is only the tip of the iceberg of ongoing financial mismanagement at the expense of student-athletes.”
For its part, the UNM athletic department disavows any connection between the buyout and this recent announcement. Its FAQ document addresses this claim: “Are there any ties between this announcement and the recent search for a men’s basketball coach and the buyout for Craig Neal?”
The answer given is: “No, discussions about ways to help our bottom-line regarding our budget have been ongoing for several months among the department’s budget committee. That committee made a recommendation to [vice president of athletics] Paul Krebs and he made the recommendation to the University administration. Regardless of the buyout for men’s basketball coach Craig Neal, this decision would have been made.”
Mercogliano, the athletics department spokesman, also provided a more nuanced view of the contract language of the Neal buyout. Mercogliano mentioned a mitigation clause in the contract, by which any money Neal earns over the next two years reduces UNM’s financial obligations to its former coach by an equal amount.
That is, Neal is presumptively owed $500,000 in each of the next two years, payable in 24 monthly installments, as a “salary” for not coaching the UNM basketball team in that time. But if he made $100,000 per year for two years, then UNM would owe him only $400,000 per year for two years, or $800,000 total. If he made $250,000 per year, then UNM would owe him $500,000 over the next two years. And so on.
“We’re assuming he’s going to get a job,” Mercogliano said of Neal; “that’s not much of a question at this point. Whatever salary he then gets gets mitigated off of what we owe him.”
Mercogliano also characterized the budget analysis as, “It’s not, ‘Skiing was cut, we’ve got this $600,000, how now are we going to spend it.’ It’s money that we just don’t have any more, because of state budget cuts, rising costs, cost of scholarships,” and other expenses.
What happens next
Skiing has been a varsity sport at the University of New Mexico since 1970 (it began as a club sport two years before that). Despite that venerable heritage, UNM is now preparing for a future without skiing. “Is there a possibility skiing could be reinstated?” its FAQ sheet notes.
“One would never say never,” was the answer, “but in our current climate, it is not a part of the future vision of Lobo Athletics. We are moving forward with skiing off the table.”
Despite that official statement, Landstedt is preparing to advocate for his program. “We’re going to fight this decision. We’re working out a strategy right now,” he told FasterSkier late Thursday afternoon. “Because we were told at the meeting at 1 o’clock [today] – the AD told us they would discontinue the ski program. They read us a letter stating that by June 30 we’re out of there, we’re fired. And then 10 minutes later the press release went out, and then right after that they told the student-athletes. So we didn’t find out anything until right then. It was very poorly handled by the department in the first place.”
Brachner wrote, “UNM’s Board of Regents has their next meeting on Tuesday and we need to gather as many troops as possible in favor of the team, athletes, teachers, supporters, friends, etc. to show that we are important to the community and it is valuable for UNM to have a Ski Team.”
One representative of the local ski community is Clay Moseley. The president of Southwest Nordic Ski Club, based in Los Alamos, is active in supporting what he calls “a small, but very vibrant Nordic community in New Mexico, with a rapidly expanding group of kids in both Albuquerque and Northern New Mexico.” Moseley wrote to FasterSkier that “Our access to the team is a critical part of the motivation for the kids. They marvel at the team and the team members are always so supportive and friendly to our kids. We are SO isolated here, so having that little bit of contact to some ski ‘heroes’ is vital.”
The next Board of Regents meeting is on April 18. The budget approval meeting is scheduled for May 11.
As of Friday, a petition titled, “Save the NMU Ski Team,” had more than 3,000 supporters. Its goal is 5,000.
The Board of Regents may be reached by email at regents [at] unm.edu, or by phone at 505-277-7639. Contact information for Board of Regents President Robert M. Doughty III is available through his law firm website. Board of Regents Vice President Marron Lee lists her email address as marronresipsa [at] gmail.com in the publicly available New Mexico Bar Association Directory.