By ALAN SNEL
There was a national championship that seems lifetimes ago and Gucci Row and a college basketball team that once dominated the local sports market.
But UNLV sports — specifically the basketball and football teams — now face their ultimate challenge.
Not only is the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels basketball team coming off a cringe-worthy 11-21 record (4-14 in league play) that kept fans away from Thomas & Mack Center, UNLV must now do business in a rapidly evolving sports market in Las Vegas that includes a new NHL team in an arena two miles away, a new WNBA team, a new professional soccer club and an NFL team that is coming to Sin City in 2020. Plus, there is a second NASCAR event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway starting in 2018.
UNLV is charting a new marketing course in a much more competitive sports market.
The Rebels are vying for the disposable income dollar with new pro teams and long-time events — UFC fight shows, NASCAR at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the PGA Shriners Hospitals for Children Open and the NBA Summer League — in America’s hottest sports market.
“The concern is how much disposable income is there to support UNLV,” said James Dean Leavitt, a lawyer who is a former Nevada Board of Regents member and a big UNLV sports fan. “The short answer for UNLV to compete in this market is winning. I don’t think UNLV can get in the black if they don’t start winning.”
UNLV basketball coach Marvin Menzies put it simply, “If you win, they will come.”
UNLV season ticket holder Allen Puliz, a basketball fan since the 1970s, said he didn’t expect the new pro soccer or WNBA teams to be major competitors to UNLV sports because he looked at soccer and women’s basketball drawing different demographic groups.
“UNLV has to compete against the big-money sports,” Puliz said. “It will be very hard this year, but we need to have more (UNLV) winning teams. If they can be ranked again, they’ll get butts in the seats.”
Changing athletic directors typically creates a marketing and sales transition period, and the change to new AD Desiree Reed-Francois this year at $350,000 per year from Tina Kunzer-Murphy meant the sales pitch and fan engagement strategies would move in new directions. The two women have contrasting personalities and marketing styles, with Reed-Francois coming from the outside and Virginia Tech, while Kunzer-Murphy is a long-time local fixture on the southern Nevada sports scene and former Las Vegas Bowl executive director.
Plus, UNLV switched college media and marketing companies, moving from College IMG and going with Learfield this year in a 10-year, 57-million deal that is worth $25 million more than the IMG agreement that expired.
Then, there was pushback from students and the community after the university unveiled a new UNLV logo that was criticized for being too cluttered and for being designed by a company that was not even from Las Vegas. A Colorado agency created the new contemporary logo that required a list of explanations for each feature in the logo, from identifying art in the logo that was supposed to be the Nevada mountains to showing the outline of the iconic Las Vegas welcome sign.
Marketing consultant Tony Cordasco, UNLV broadcast manager overseeing basketball and football in the 1990s before he became a 15-year Red Bull marketing manager, said he likes what he sees under the Reed-Francois regime.
Cordasco said the new regime placed an emphasis on getting students to UNLV football games with free bus rides and showcasing players in in-game videos answering quiz show-style questions.
“She was behind the eight ball by getting here late, but it looks promising. There are not as many ads on the Jumbotron and there are more entertainment videos and halftime entertainment for fans to see,” Cordasco told LVSportsBiz.com before the UNLV-Rice MGM Resorts Main Event game Monday.
“It’s headed in the right direction,” said Cordasco, a 1982 UNLV graduate. “I feel confident those pieces will come together, the game experience, the engaging of the students.”
But fans were not so sure there have been big changes in the in-game entertainment. UNLV basketball season ticket holders Craig and Jeri Reitan said things seem the same in terms of the in-game entertainment.
“I don’t see a big change in the fan experience. But I think the product is better,” Craig Reiten told LVSportsBiz.com before today’s UNLV-Rice game.
The UNLV football team has experienced an up-and-down season. But UNLV officials are counting on a new training center and a new Raiders stadium scheduled to open in 2020 and to be used by UNLV as key recruiting tools to draw better players and win more games.
“If that new stadium and new Fertitta football complex doesn’t do it. I don’t what can,” Leavitt said. “That has to have an impact on some talented kids. You look at the pictures of that stadium and I want to start getting into shape. There seems to be disposable income for folks when UNLV teams are winning. You have to have something special to attract kids, and kids like shiny things.”
UNLV football and basketball games are affordable alternatives compared to Vegas Golden Knights tickets. VGK owner Bill Foley said the average Golden Knights ticket is $88 — much higher than the UNLV ticket. There’s also the personal seat license charge that Raiders will have to pay besides the pricy NFL ticket when the new 65,000-seat domed stadium opens on 62 acres on the west side of I-15, bounded by Polaris Avenue and Russell Road.
“There will be folks who will be priced out of the NFL,” Leavitt said.
He noted he paid $250 per ticket for two tickets for 10 Golden Knights games — a $5,000 investment during the NHL team’s inaugural season.
Fans and sponsors said Las Vegas loves a winner — and Thomas & Mack will rock again with more butts in the seats if the Runnin Rebels flip last year’s bad record into a winning slate.
“Everybody likes a winner,” said UNLV big booster Cliff Findlay, whose automobile dealerships are major UNLV sports sponsors. “Win games.”
Contact LVSportsBiz.com founder/writer Alan Snel at asnel@LVSportsBiz.com