New Mexico Voices: UNM football program adrift in red ink

James Barron
The Santa Fe New Mexican


Guest Editorial

SANTA FE – Sometimes, desperate times lead to desperate measures.

Well, in the case of the University of New Mexico athletic department's desperation in balancing its budget and paying back its debt, the desperate measure really isn't all that desperate.

It's just sound. So that means UNM won't even entertain the thought.

What thought is that? Why, getting rid of the football program, of course.

There is too much riding on the program for UNM to even think about such a drastic cut. Too much money spent. Too much damage to the brand of a Division I athletic program. Too much revenue to be lost.

And too revolutionary an idea to do it.

This has nothing to do with hating football. Far from it. Despite all the hits (figurative and literal) the sport takes, it's too ingrained in my blood to let go of it. And the job Bob Davie has done in his six years at the helm has been highly successful considering the state of the program he took over, and should be lauded. Heck, the football program is actually entertaining to watch.

Ah, but there lies the hook – watching.

If we look at housing a football program as a line item in a department budget that is adrift in millions of dollars of red ink – and one that has not carried its own weight since the days of Rocky Long – getting rid of it makes the most sense.

Yes, donations will drop, and the football fan base probably will take out its anger by not spending money on UNM athletics. But guess what? It wasn't like people were lining up for a football ticket anyway. Attendance was up for the 2017 season – to just over 21,000 people per game after an average of 20,277 people showed up for a 9-4 team that won its own New Mexico Bowl in 2016.

In fact, attendance figures have hovered in the low 20,000-range since Davie's hire, and the 2016 average attendance dropped by more than 3,000 people. What this seems to indicate is that the community's interest in the football program is ... Well, meh.

And that is really the crux of the issue here. For the past 50-plus years, Albuquerque and Northern New Mexico is a basketball community, first and foremost, and it will continue that way. There was an eight-year window under Long (from 2001-08) that the heartbeat of football was strong, then came Long's "the damn fans" comment as he left in 20008, and the horrific Mike Locksley era arose to weaken the sport's pulse.

To keep a football program afloat just for the pretense of meeting Mountain West Conference bylaws is absurd, when you consider that study after study show only a handful of football programs generate a profit on their own. As far as generating revenue for a school, that line of thinking only really works for the Power 5 conferences and schools like Boise State and BYU.

The rest of the schools in this country are simply doing it because they understand the impact of not having a football program.

Besides, the MWC came to a crossroads this spring when it considered bringing Gonzaga and its football-less department into its fold. Adding Gonzaga could have encouraged schools to drop football or even move it to the FCS level. Maybe the conference should consider eliminating that provision any way.

Perhaps UNM should be the one to lead the way. It could divert focus on its more famous men's basketball program, and help boost the reputations of other programs -- like its national championship cross-country program or its nationally competitive men's soccer program. How about a baseball program challenging to get into the College World Series?

Sure, it's not the same as having a football program battling for conference titles, but that was its ceiling anyway.

Might as well lead the charge and streamline an athletic department into one that can do more with less.

All it takes is one brave, bold soul.

Too bad that person doesn't reside at UNM.