It’s a new world for college sports. Will Nevada and UNLV survive?
It was cold, even for November in Las Vegas. A smattering of UNLV Rebels fans were nonetheless scattered around Allegiant Stadium’s parking lots, heated by grills, booze and a love of the game.
But this year, that love came a bit easier. For the first time in decades, UNLV’s football team was not just entertaining. They were actually good at football.
“This is the first time in my life that we've actually won games,” said Jeff Goltra, a UNLV alumnus in between stints at a grill propped in the back of a pickup truck. “We're heading in the right direction for the first time.”
Goltra was among more than 25,500 fans at Allegiant Stadium who watched the Rebels face Mountain West foe Wyoming.
That night, a seesawing first half gave way to UNLV domination, the home team cruising 34-14 to its seventh win of the season. It was a clinic from head coach Barry Odom, who energized a once-listless program into a 9-4 team that qualified for the Mountain West Championship and was invited to its first bowl game since 2013.
Though UNLV fell to Kansas 49-36 in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl in late December, it still marked a happier ending to a season than UNLV’s in-state rival Nevada, which fired head coach Ken Wilson after consecutive 2-9 seasons.
Unlike Power Five programs, where donor money stretches into the tens of millions in the pursuit of decades of on-field success, small programs such as UNLV and Nevada’s are defined by a boom-bust cycle — periods of success punctuating long stretches of mediocrity or worse as the best coaches (and top recruits) seek bigger paydays in bigger markets.
And the world of college athletics has continued to convulse. The creation of name, image and likeness rules (commonly referred to as NIL) by the NCAA in 2021 revolutionized the economics of college sports, opening, for the first time, a spigot of millions of dollars for the student athletes at the heart of individual programs.
Meanwhile, the promise of ever more lucrative television deals have spurred the great realignment, as the Power Five conferences of old have winnowed into the Power Four, the country’s wealthiest and most successful football programs leaping across geographic boundaries in a nationwide game of musical chairs. It has left some — including athletic directors at top programs — to speculate that the largest programs could go even further, abandoning the old regional conference format in favor of powerhouse megaconferences.
Schools on the outside looking in have struggled to kickstart average-to-moribund programs, as even stalwart programs have struggled to keep pace with the transfer portal. For programs like Nevada, it comes, too, as new budgetary pressures have placed increased strain on universities already scrambling to shore up flagging enrollments and looming budget cuts. For others, like UNLV, a year of so-far unprecedented success has created a new pressure: The spotlight.
In this new world — where will Nevada’s programs fall?
At UNLV, can the iron stay hot?
In Las Vegas, one winning season of football has already led to a rollercoaster offseason.
After losing its first bowl game appearance in a decade, star freshman quarterback Jayden Maiava entered the transfer portal en route to a Power Five program at the University of Southern California (a day after committing to Georgia and weeks after saying he would stay at UNLV).
A UNLV recruiting spree followed, including a half-dozen top transfers and a top replacement at quarterback.
But it was a process still tinged by the fear that large schools could poach the team’s best talent through lucrative NIL promises. A flurry of social media activity followed star receiver Ricky White last week after publication of a report in the Las Vegas Sun that UNLV boosters were scrambling to secure NIL money to counter a purported $250,000 offer from Notre Dame boosters. White responded by calling the reporting “False News” and has not entered the portal in days since.
Separately, the prospect that another program could lure away coaching talent with deals that are orders of magnitude larger than UNLV’s athletics budget — especially second-year Head Coach Barry Odom — looms large. Of its 13 head coaches in program history, only three ended their UNLV tenure with a winning record, and none since 1981.
In an interview, UNLV Athletic Director Erick Harper acknowledged that a “revolving door of leadership” had made it difficult for the Rebels to retain top coaching talent in the past. Now, after a single season of success, Harper touted the relationship between himself, Odom and UNLV President Keith Whitfield — as “aligned” to the point that it might “overcome some of the financial things.”
“We’ve got a $2 billion stadium, we have a $35 million on-campus football complex, we are in a city that is the sports and entertainment capital of the world,” Harper said. “There's just so much opportunity here to continue to grow the program and grow with the university that — why not build a legacy here?”
To that end, UNLV has already sought to expand its athletics fundraising net in only the last few months. Creating the “Rebel Up” campaign, the school’s athletic fund set a goal of $150 million in what it called its first “comprehensive capital campaign” designed to fund new athletics facilities. At launch in mid-October, the fund had just $1.6 million already banked, $1 million of which came from the Las Vegas Raiders.
It’s money Harper said would boost “the whole caboodle” — facilities, scholarships, nutrition, mental health and an endowment. But it’s also money that comes, he said, as UNLV looks to secure a piece of the expanding sports pie in Las Vegas, one juiced by the Las Vegas Raiders, Vegas Golden Knights and Las Vegas Aces and even Formula One.
“UNLV has been here since 1957,” Harper said. “No disrespect to the Golden Knights, but UNLV is also born and bred right here in Las Vegas.”
In the meantime, the regular emails hyping the next game have come to mirror blasts from political super PACs. On Wednesday, a fundraising missive bearing Harper’s and Odom’s names lauded fans and donors as the “backbone” of the program’s success — and urged them to renew season tickets.
The new black box of NIL money
At the core of this new college football era, however, are the student athletes — for the first time able to profit from the billion-dollar business that had for so long relegated them to unpaid amateur status.
After several states began exploring new laws that would ban the NCAA from enforcing a ban on endorsements for student athletes, the NCAA Board of Governors began exploring formal NIL rules in 2019. As congressional efforts to address the endorsement question stalled, the Supreme Court ruled against the NCAA in June 2021, rejecting an argument from the group that the NCAA wasn’t subject to federal antitrust laws.
A wave of state legislation governing NIL soon followed. That included Nevada, where lawmakers passed AB254 in 2021 — opening the door for students to pursue NIL deals, but doing little to outline contract disclosures or other transparency measures beyond requiring students to disclose past deals before signing a letter of intent with an institution.
In 2023, a legislative effort to update the state’s NIL law, SB70, sought to expand reporting and oversight requirements for donors and businesses engaging in NIL contracts. The bill died in committee without ever receiving a hearing.
In the space between universities and athletes have emerged NIL collectives. Sometimes localized to single programs, sometimes spanning dozens of universities, such collectives operate independently from colleges and universities as tax-exempt nonprofits — a model that allows major and minor donors alike to make tax-deductible contributions and NIL deals with student athletes.
Rob Sine is the CEO of Blueprint Sports, a company that runs NIL collectives for two dozen universities nationwide, including UNLV and UNR, alongside a handful of programs in the larger Power Four conferences, home of powerhouses such as the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC).
In a modern NCAA reshaped by the influx of NIL money and the transfer portal, Sine said Group of Five schools such as UNLV and UNR lack the kind of institutional infrastructure that benefits the Power Five — hundreds of thousands of living alumni spread across the country, many with deep pockets. Instead, Sine described smaller schools as “Swifties” — akin to die-hard fans of Taylor Swift — a “rabid” fan base concentrated almost entirely in that local market.
“Compared to an SEC school, a Big Ten school, an ACC school, there's just noticeable differences,” Sine said. “But I think administrators know that, fans know that and coaches know that. Everybody in the conference understands that.”
The small-program reality has created a new anxiety at UNLV, where the transfer portal and lucrative coaching contracts elsewhere cast a pall over the school’s recent success. But within that environment, Sine said UNLV’s newfound on-field success could beget a financial windfall — if the school can maintain it.
“It's farming, it's stewardship of people that have given, it's going out and finding new prospects,” Sine said. “It's the hand-to-hand combat ground game that has to exist to kind of build the base, just like you would do in politics.”
To that end, Sine said NIL collectives are frequently taking a page from the political playbook — in data collection and robocalls and fundraising. Those links have begun to emerge even in the language NIL collectives use in their fundraising missives, blasted to tens of thousands of alumni after a key loss with language at home in any email from a super PAC: “Now is not the time to rest.”
“UNR and UNLV — especially UNLV — can be anything they want to be, but they have to kind of take the guard off and say, ‘OK, let's grow this, let's do what we want to do,’” Sine said.
But nationwide, many athletic directors remain uneasy with the scope and opacity of the collectives — which operate independently from the institutions — now propping up major programs. Nevada Athletic Director Stephanie Rempe told The Nevada Independent that the spirit of NIL was “wonderful” — but that the collectives have “gotten out of control.”
“It's the Wild Wild West,” Rempe said. “And those collectives are going and recruiting players and getting people to go into the transfer [portal] and all those things that aren't supposed to be happening — that are happening — is really hard.”
Rempe lamented the role of the courts in triggering the sudden switch to a largely unregulated NIL landscape — “when the courts get involved … they just make the decisions and then we have to figure it out” — and called for more transparency.
“Nobody's able to do a whole lot when it comes to enforcing people, to disclose whatever their deals are to make sure there's not tampering,” she said. “There's a lot of kids that get in really bad positions because you have agents that are not necessarily in it for the best interest of the student athletes.”
At UNR, a fight over slicing the budget pie
At the state’s flagship university in Northern Nevada, questions of athletics funding are at the center of a newly opened rift between faculty and administrators who have been scrambling to shore up budget holes that could end with more than 100 academic positions cut through 2025.
At issue is $10 million set aside for athletics out of UNR’s roughly $321 million annual budget.
Data from the Knight-Newhouse College Athletics Database shows UNR has spent marginally more than other Mountain West schools on academics, and markedly less on athletics between 2017 and 2021. At the same time, the Wolf Pack generally ran larger debts year-to-year than the Mountain West median, often between $2 million and $2.8 million annually.
Those figures inverted in 2022, when data show UNR athletics spending jumped from roughly $34.8 million to $45.2 million.
University administrators explained the increase as a shifting of the university's cost burdens — paying off debts — from the end of the year to the beginning. It was paid for at the start, they said, with money available through a federal higher education aid relief fund passed as part of larger COVID relief bills. With that money gone, administrators have since said the funding will come from other institutional pots of money.
Rempe said she understood the challenge for UNR President Brian Sandoval in balancing a strained budget — “there’s a lot of mouths to feed,” she said. But Rempe also argued that athletics was a value-add for the university, for enrollment, for philanthropy — that “any R1 [top research] university, go down the list, has a strong athletics program.”
“So this institution, President Sandoval, the State of Nevada, whomever — has committed to us being a Division I athletics program,” Rempe said. “And so if you're in it, and you want to compete, it costs money.”
As for the fruits of that investment, Rempe touted Nevada’s men’s basketball team (“arguably in the top 25 right now,” she said) and the hiring of new football coach Jeff Choate. The ex-Texas co-defensive coordinator is the highest-paid UNR football coach ever with a five-year, $5.7 million deal — but still only the ninth highest coaching salary in the Mountain West.
“We feel like we have a strong league [in the Mountain West],” Rempe said. “We know who we are. Any school in our conference can win the league in any sport.”
But an internal budget crunch that rippled throughout the Nevada System of Higher Education last year has led some faculty to lambaste the move as UNR has made university-wide cuts above and beyond similar cuts at other Nevada institutions.
Kent Ervin, a former president of the Nevada Faculty Alliance and faculty emeritus at UNR, has sharply criticized UNR’s budgeting in a series of blog posts made to the NFA’s website. In an interview, Ervin said choosing to spend the money on athletics, rather than on shoring up departments in some cases still short staffed from the pandemic, was “taking away from the core academic mission of the university.”
“If you're adding money to athletics during the time of budget cuts, and if that money could have been used to bridge our academic programs, every million dollars that's diverted from the main instructional budget is equivalent to 10 new faculty hires,” he said.
Ervin argued that though not a perfect one-to-one comparison, the full $10 million still equates to about 100 teaching positions — roughly the same number UNR proposed cutting, through vacancies and position eliminations, as a means to fund major new cost-of-living raises for faculty in 2024 and 2025.
Asked about the $10 million, Rempe downplayed the payments as “new money” for athletics, and again recast it as a shift of funds that would have already gone to athletics in past years as a means of paying down debts and cost overruns. Now, she said, “there won't be any bailing [athletics] out at the end of the year.”
“[The money] has been in place for years,” Rempe said. “And people have this soundbite that all of a sudden, ‘the university with this huge budget crisis is putting an extra $10 million into athletics.’ It's just not true … We are no better off today than we were for the last couple of years.”
In an email, Ervin countered that the money would still constitute an increase after the 2021 fiscal year, when COVID aid for athletics first became available. Before that, he said, “officially reported institutional support was minimal.”
But in an interview, UNR Vice President for Administration and Finance Andrew Clinger echoed Rempe. He said athletics were subject to university-wide cuts like any other department and argued reduced athletic funding could have unintended consequences.
“I'm sure there are those on campus that would say, ‘Well, you should give less to athletics,’” Clinger said. “That's certainly one opinion. But what happens to enrollment if we don't have a robust athletic program? Does that potentially impact enrollment? I mean, it certainly could. I don't know the answer to that.”