Equal pay for UNM coaches makes for a complicated issue

Editor’s note: This story continues the Journal’s coverage of Title IX and its impact on local sports. Title IX legislation turned 50 years old this summer.

Richard Pitino (left, with Jaelen House) earns $800,000 as men’s basketball coach. (Mike Sandoval/Journal file)

Equal pay for equal work seems a reasonable concept, but in the world of collegiate coaching it’s not reality.

In the 50 years since Title IX became the law of the land, coaches (men and women) who lead women’s college athletic teams have made immense progress in terms of compensation and equitable treatment. With women’s sports gaining popularity and greater visibility through television and live-streaming deals, contracts have become more lucrative for head coaches and staff members.

A telling example is the University of New Mexico women’s basketball program, where former coach Don Flanagan earned $45,000 for his first season in 1995-96. Twenty-six years later, in 2021-22, two of current coach Mike Bradbury’s assistant coaches made more than twice that salary.

Still, neither Bradbury nor his assistants are paid on a level with their UNM men’s basketball counterparts. Second-year men’s coach Richard Pitino’s base salary is $400,000, while Bradbury heads into his seventh season at $270,000. Pitino also receives $200,000 for media obligations and $200,000 more for program promotion, while Bradbury gets $25,000 for media obligations and no promotional stipend.

Few would argue that the job descriptions for men’s and women’s basketball coaches differ appreciably. But the pay scale certainly differs, and not just at UNM. Fair or not, coaches of collegiate men’s teams typically make more than those leading comparable women’s programs and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

Why? Revenue is the driving factor.

“It’s strictly business,” Bradbury said. “Men’s basketball makes more money, so it makes sense to pay men’s coaches more. You can’t argue with the numbers.”

UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez takes a similar position.

Mike Bradbury, right, shown at a UNM women’s basketball game in 2020, said he understands the pay-scale discrepancy between men’s and women’s coaches, but he is optimistic that the discrepancy can be reduced in the future. (Anthony Jackson/Journal file)

“Pay for women’s athletic coaches is much greater now than it’s ever been,” Nuñez said. “Is it equal to men’s coaches? No. Every school is different in terms of budget and the salaries they can offer, but market value is still one of the big things you go by, right or not.”

For now, men’s and women’s sports markets are not balanced enough to support equal salaries, Nuñez said. At UNM, for example, men’s basketball was projected to bring in $3.3 million in ticket revenue last season, while women’s basketball was projected at $370,000.

“I’d love to see more equal salaries,” Nuñez said, “but it’s not realistic right now. We can’t afford to raise one set of salaries to make them all equal, and if we cut the other set we can’t compete.”

The encouraging news, Nuñez said, is that markets for women’s sports are expanding. He points to national television coverage of college softball and women’s soccer as examples, and says the higher profile is likely to drive up fan interest and, ultimately, salaries.

Kelly O’Neill

Kelly O’Neill, an Albuquerque attorney with a background working in college athletics, would also like to see more equality in coaching salaries. She remains hopeful, pointing to the gains women have made in sports, on and off the field, since her days of playing soccer and basketball at Eldorado High School.

Before earning her law degree, O’Neill worked in sports information at San Diego State, Florida A&M and Florida International from 1999-2003. The playing fields for men and women in those days were drastically different, she said.

“When I was at San Diego State, baseball played at Tony Gwynn Stadium, which is beautiful,” O’Neill said. “Softball played on a dirt field. Not exactly equal.”

During O’Neill’s tenure at Florida A&M, the school decided to add a women’s soccer program.

“They asked me if I wanted to coach the team,” she said with a laugh. “They said, ‘You played soccer, right?’

“I don’t think those qualifications would fly today.”

Around the same time, O’Neill considered pursuing a career in television sports broadcasting but found few opportunities. She has been encouraged to see more and more women working in the field in recent years.

Nuñez, meanwhile, points to recent examples of women coaching men’s teams – former UNM softball player Rachel Balkovec and ex-Colorado State women’s basketball star Becky Hammon among them – who are helping to change perceptions. Balkovec is the first woman to manage a Major League Baseball-affiliated team, while Hammon served as an NBA assistant coach for seven years before signing on as head coach of the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces for this season.

“Anyone can see they’re doing the exact same jobs as men,” Nuñez said, “and they’re excelling at them. I think they’re positive examples who can help drive things forward.”

Nuñez said UNM’s coaching salaries factor in experience and previous success along with sport-by-sport market considerations. In some cases that works in favor of equal pay. Men’s and women’s tennis coaches Chris Russell and Vicky Maes came to UNM with extensive experience and both have $70,000 base salaries.

But revenue-producing sports operate on a different salary template – something Bradbury views with a pragmatic eye.

“I agree the jobs are the same for men’s and women’s coaches,” Bradbury said. “And sure, it would be nice if we made the same pay. But I’m not complaining. It’s market driven. Salaries have been going up for women’s coaches, and if we keep making the game better and growing the market, they’ll keep going up. That’s how I look at it.”

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