UNM looks to ax ski team, locals rally in opposition

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Minutes after Paul Krebs, the University of New Mexico's vice president for athletics, announced Thursday (April 13) the university's ski team program was being cut, ski industry locals were sharing their outrage.

Several stated their belief that it had something to do with the school's April 1 firing of Craig Neal, the men's basketball head coach, at a cost of $1 million for the buyout. According to the Albuquerque Journal, Neal's salary and compensation totaled $950,000 per year, making him the highest paid public employee in the state.

The athletics department website noted, however, "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 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."

An athletics department press release said the men's and women's alpine and Nordic ski teams were being cut "due to impending budget cuts and rising costs" and added, "The decision will save the department approximately $600,000 per year in operating budget, scholarships and salaries."

Robin May, Angel Fire Resort's ski school director, wrote on Facebook, "As [a] 35 year ski industry veteran, ex racer and present Board Member for Ski New Mexico and PSIA Rocky Mountain, I am speechless. [UNM ski team members] represent a sport that has a state industry of enthusiasts and one that brings millions [of dollars] to the state."

According to George Brooks, executive director of Ski New Mexico, the ski industry brought $524.1 million into the state for the 2015-16 season with gross receipts taxes totaling $39.3 million.

May and others have been promoting a petition, "Save the University of New Mexico Ski Team," created by Patrick Brachner, of Albuquerque. Meanwhile, other industry leaders began campaigns of their own.

Brooks, who is also a New Mexico Ski Hall of Famer - in part for his creation of the ski team in 1970 and the ski team head coach role he held until 2007, when he stepped up to head Ski New Mexico - told The Chronicle, "As you can imagine, I am extremely disappointed in Krebs' decision. This is one more bad decision in a long line of poor decisions he has made."

In a letter to Ski New Mexico board members, Brooks said, "I have been working with a few people to develop a plan to fight the decision. As suggested by several board members, we will ask Ski New Mexico to go on record via letter, etc. in opposition to his decision."

University of New Mexico Ski Team head coach Fredrik Landstedt told The Chronicle, "We will fight this and will need support from everyone. We will need letters and emails sent to UNM, regents and the athletic department showing support for our program and impacts for the state of New Mexico and the ski industry."

Walt Foley, deputy general manager at Red River Ski Area, said, "We were going to host their home meet for the next five years. It's a big blow. I think it has an economic impact on us and on the town. It brings their families along with other skiers who need lodging and food. It's an economic hit all around the county."

Foley added, "They're a big influence on kids skiing, especially in New Mexico. I think it's tragic."

Neighboring Enchanted Forest Cross Country Ski & Snowshoe Area in Red River has hosted National Collegiate Athletic Association home meets for a few decades and would also have hosted the events in upcoming seasons.

Michael Ritterhouse, general manager, said, "These collegiate athletes are ambassadors. It's a great marketing tool. Collegiate competitive skiing expands the reach of UNM to many other states and constituencies that UNM otherwise would not. We travel to Alaska, for heaven's sake! The joy that these young people have is contagious.

"These are lifetime sports. You don't have that with other sports. This sport has a huge return on investment. With skiing, you're helping to support local industry as well," Ritterhouse said.

George Woerndle, owner of Sitzmark Sports in Red River, was on the team along with his brother, Rudi, in 1972.

"I'm not happy about that," Woerndle said. "The [ski] team fundraises a bunch of its own money, but they're dropping the team to pay off a basketball coach. That team was a good representative for New Mexico. It showcases that we have skiing in New Mexico. [This decision] doesn't help the ski industry any."

James Coleman, whose Texas Capital Partners company owns and/or operates Sipapu Ski and Summer Resort, Durango Mountain Resort, Pajarito Mountain Ski Area, Arizona Snowbowl in Flagstaff and San Juan Untracked in Colorado, noted, "I think it is a travesty that we would be losing the only team to win an NCAA championship in the history of UNM! I encourage our community to get behind the team and ask the university to reconsider."

According to the university website, the cuts will affect baseball, basketball, cross-country running, football, golf, soccer, tennis, track and field for men; basketball, beach volleyball, cross-country running, golf, soccer, softball, swimming and diving, tennis, volleyball, and track and field for women. UNM last dropped sports in 1999, when wrestling, men's gymnastics and men's swimming were discontinued.

Krebs said, "We've looked at many options, and unfortunately, our current model isn't sustainable. You never want to cut sports, and you never want to limit opportunities, but at this time, this is the scenario that best helps our department in the long run."

The ski program has been in existence as a varsity sport at UNM since 1970, and the sport has been an NCAA-sanctioned one since the 1982-83 season.

Landstedt sent an email to UNM ski team contacts noting, "The ski team is the top athletic and academic program here at UNM. We have an NCAA Team trophy, 13 other top 4 NCAA trophies, 17 Individual NCAA Championship winners and a 3.92 cumulative GPA for our women and 3.60 Cumulative GPA for our men. We have always covered our budget (we have had the same operating budget since 2003 and I fundraise around $50,000 net per year)."

The athletics department website noted, "Our ski program usually has between 20 and 24 on the roster, along with two coaches and two volunteer coaches. Due to graduation and people leaving the program, it will affect 18 of our current student-athletes."

UNM ski team's defunding comes six months after one of UNM's competitors, the University of Alaska, used community support to reverse a similar cut to its ski program.

The "Save the University of New Mexico Ski Team" petition can be found at change.org/p/unm-board-of-regents-save-the-university-of-new-mexico-ski-team.

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