By ALAN SNEL
It’s Dec. 1 and Desiree Reed-Francois has been on the job exactly six months as UNLV’s athletic director.
Since coming on board June 1, Reed-Francois has cautiously evaluated an athletic department that struggled last season with its signature brand — the Runnin’ Rebels basketball team — nosediving to a dismal 11-21 record while attendance plummeted at Thomas & Mack Center.
So, her first order of business was to send surveys to UNLV sports fans and “do a lot of listening.”
The long-term changes? Those won’t be coming soon. Reed-Francois, who worked at five universities in California before holding key athletic department positions at the University of Tennessee, the University of Cincinnati and Virginia Tech, is still assessing the infrastructure and needs of her department.
But she fully understands her charge. “We’re in the memory-making business,” she said. “We have to create a reason for fans to care.”
It’s 9 a.m. today in the UNLV Athletic Department offices and Reed-Francois is upbeat. I don’t know her well enough to say whether she’s always in an upbeat mood or whether she’s happy that Saturday’s night UNLV basketball game at Thomas & Mack Center is expected to draw 14,000 fans and to sell out the student ticket total of 2,500. It’ll be a giant boost in attendance from much smaller Thomas & Mack crowds so far this season.
UNLV basketball team, which is prepping to host Arizona, has flipped last season’s losing script and looks strong this campaign with a 6-1 record. A new feature will be a student tailgate with free food, a DJ and giveaways at the Tarkanian statue outside the arena before Saturday’s game.
Reed-Francois said she has made a conscious effort to get to know students in hopes they will connect with the university sports programs.
To prove her point, Reed-Francois lived in student dorms from June 1 to the end of July and discovered that students were heading to an EDC event. Reed-Francois said she thought initially the students were off to an economic development council meeting, and was confused by their creative costume outfits for an economic development meeting when she later learned about the attraction power of the Electric Daisy Carnival music festival at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
While she’s still evaluating and working on long-term objectives, Reed-Francois is activating short-term changes to draw Runnin’ Rebel fans back to Thomas & Mack and bring that “electric” atmosphere in the building.
Reed-Francois has hired a former Virginia Tech co-worker with vast video experience to beef up the in-game fan experience at football games at Sam Boyd Stadium and basketball games at Thomas & Mack.
After arriving at UNLV in August, Megan Caligiuri has business cards with an impressive title: associate athletic director for content creation and fan engagement.
Reed-Francois said Caligiuri is behind UNLV producing its own video content to get fans involved more in the game. For example, videos showing football coach Tony Sanchez and quarterback Armani Rogers competing in a fun “name that tune” music quiz were shown at football games, while basketball players on a taped video compete in a friendly quiz game competition with a student at games at Thomas & Mack.
New dance cams and DJ music jams are also part of beefing up game experiences for fans, Reed-Francois said. She even noted male students are now part of the dance group at basketball games — a new wrinkle.
So new videos, dance cams and DJs are in, while UNLV has stopped playing sponsor commercials during the game.
Caligiuri is not the sole marketing person in the department. There’s also Meghan Cordeiro in marketing.
And Reed-Francois said she plans to hire two more marketing staffers to focus on fan engagement and game experiences as her evaluation of the department continues.
More small, incremental changes are coming. For example, UNLV plans to move its basketball post-game radio interview to the court at Thomas & Mack from the seats in hopes that fans stick around to listen to coach Marvin Manzies chat about the game.
And Reed-Francois said ticket prices are also being evaluated, though she believes the ticket costs are good deals even right now. For example, she said there’s a group ticket deal that allows fans in groups of 20 or more to buy tickets for football or basketball games for as low as nine bucks per ticket.
Group ticket prices vary by game, depending on UNLV’s opponent. Check for group rates here.
Reed-Francois said every aspect of the game experience is being evaluated, from issuing pre-game traffic reports on social media and lighting up trees and the arena exterior in red on basketball game nights to making sure that parking attendants and ushers know exactly what to say to fans who come to games and improving traffic flow out of the Thomas & Mack parking lot.
Meanwhile, UNLV is working social media to get fans out to the UNLV-Arizona game Saturday. Reed-Francois urged fans to pack the Mack, while a video of Menzies after Friday’s practice was also posted on Twitter.
LVSportsBiz.com will be at the game. Follow LVSportsBiz.com on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for photos and comments from Thomas & Mack tomorrow night.
Contact LVSportsBiz.com founder/writer Alan Snel at asnel@LVSportsBiz.com