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Nevada’s college sports are finally winning. So why are they still losing money?

At UNR, in particular, athletics revenues are projected to fall behind expenses in each of the next four years.
Jacob Solis
Jacob Solis
Higher EducationSports

It’s March, madness forthcoming. 

In Reno, the Wolf Pack Men’s basketball team is in the middle of a tear through the Mountain West, winning 10 of their last 12 games as of March 8, sometimes in style befitting the season. 

Their rivals at UNLV, not to be outdone, have also won 10 of their last 12 as of Friday, with one of those two losses coming to — who else? — Nevada. UNLV’s Lady Rebels basketball team has been doing even better, losing just two games all season for the best record in the Mountain West and good enough to rank 23rd nationwide. 

It follows a historically good football season for the traditionally woebegotten Rebels that ended with the team’s first bowl game in a decade and its best record since the 1980s. Even in Reno, where the football season ended in 2-10 misery and a fired head coach, spirits have been buoyed after the hire of ex-Texas co-defensive coordinator Jeff Choate as the team’s new head coach, dreams of possibility erasing the much more real pain of losing (and losing often). 

But during a meeting of the Board of Regents in charge of the Nevada System of Higher Education early this month, the athletic director from UNLV predicted, in their estimations, breaking even on a 2025 budget exceeding $66 million. 

And in UNR estimations, there’s a roughly $2 million deficit every year for the next four years, even with revenues north of $50 million — projections that come even after President Brian Sandoval pledged $10 million in annual institutional support meant to lift the university’s athletics funding toward the Mountain West mean. 

So — where’s all the money going? 

‘We've got some issues’

In interviews with The Nevada Independent this week, top athletic administrators said budgeting four years in advance is something of an inexact science, as susceptible to the swings of new conference-level television contract terms or multimillion-dollar coach buyouts as it is to an unexpected recession. 

At UNR, university administrators have very publicly sought to balance the spending math, in large part by giving the department that aforementioned $10 million at the start of the fiscal year. That plan, administrators have argued, would under ideal circumstances negate the need to cover million-dollar deficits at the end of the fiscal year, as was often the case through the 2010s

The Wolf Pack’s athletic director, Stephanie Rempe, said in an interview that the $10 million was really the “meat” of the department’s budget, rather than a “cushion.”

But looking forward, Nevada’s newest athletics report still projects a significant deficit every fiscal year through 2028, ranging from as much as $2.8 million in 2024 to as little as $1.3 million in 2026. Those numbers are also much lower than original deficit estimates provided to regents in early February, which ranged from $7.3 million to more than $9.6 million. 

Rempe said the expected shortfall is in large part a consequence of conservative estimates — budgeting out a worst-case for revenues and expenses. 

“We felt we were pretty transparent,” she said. “We’ve got some issues coming forward, but we know we have to solve them.” 

Beyond that, Matthew Smith, the chief financial officer at UNR’s athletics department, said an increasing number of unknowns complicates budget projections, such as looming question marks once the Mountain West Conference renegotiates its media rights deal in 2026. 

But even with a successful basketball team, Rempe acknowledged that fan enthusiasm — and the ticket sales that might bring — have lagged on-court victories. She said Saturday’s rivalry game against UNLV was only the program’s second sellout of the year, even with the Wolf Pack a virtual lock to make this year’s NCAA Tournament. 

“It's two years in a row we've been doing great,” Rempe said. “I don't understand why we haven't sold out more this year. I really don't. I don’t understand why we only have 5,000 season tickets for a program that's as successful as the one we have.”

But, Rempe added, when she arrived two years ago, she may have underestimated the “compounding” effects of low institutional and state funding, inconsistent philanthropy and “not having a strategy behind ticket sales.” 

“I did not fully grasp that kind of impact, in terms of what our starting point was,” Rempe said. “For a year and a half I felt momentum, and I feel like we're putting people in the right place and we're creating a better game day experience and all these different things. I just didn't — I thought our start line was further than further ahead than it was.”

Even still, Rempe said she was “incredibly optimistic” the program could get Renoites on board, assuming success on the field and the court remains consistent. Part of the optimism: less turnover and better infrastructure for the program’s ticket sales team, and a more concerted effort to create a “culture change” in Reno — one in which the city is a true college town. 

At UNLV, will success beget more success? 

At UNLV, projections are more steady — and deficits, save one exception, almost entirely absent. 

Even in an early draft of revenue projections submitted to regents last month, the worst-case deficits for UNLV hovered around $5 million annually. Under the latest projections with updated revenue estimates expected from scheduling payouts against non-conference opponents (teams like UNLV will often agree to play Power Five programs on the promise of six or seven-figure payouts, such as the $1.5 million Michigan paid to play the Rebels in Ann Arbor last year) a deficit is only anticipated for 2027, and even then, only by about $2,200, out of a $67.4 million budget. 

The lone exception is the last fiscal year, 2023, when revenues fell about $7 million dollars compared with 2022, while expenses jumped by about $4 million (all told, the deficit last year reached nearly $10 million). 

UNLV Athletic Director Erick Harper told regents that the deficit was a unique mix of factors — both the firing of football coach Marcus Arroyo in late 2022 that doubled expenses for personnel, and a delay on the revenue “waterfall” payments from the university’s joint-use agreement with Allegiant Stadium. Under that agreement, if UNLV can’t generate more than $5 million annually in net football revenue during the first decade of Allegiant’s operations, up to $3.5 million is paid to the university to make up the shortfall. 

To that end, UNLV announced in January 2024 that it would receive nearly $2 million in Allegiant money to make up for a shortfall from 2022. 

In an interview, Harper said the numbers could continue to change, especially under the undulating logistics of NCAA conference realignment that has upended the world of college football

“I can guarantee some [payouts] will go up significantly,” Harper said, pointing, for instance, to UNLV's looming game next season against Syracuse. “And some will go away.” 

But projections are not destiny, and Harper said small changes in different revenue streams can still ripple elsewhere. 

“So those numbers that you know from ‘25, ‘26, ‘27, ‘28 — they could look different next year,” Harper said. “Whether it's through [student] fees, ticket sales, coaching change … but also donor contributions, because the more you win, the more donor contributions go up and the more season tickets go up.” 

To wit, Harper said, was UNLV’s game in 2021 against Iowa State, a single contest that produced “about a million dollars in ticket sales” amid increased fan interest in two top Iowa State players (the Rebels went on to lose 48-3). For comparison, for the 2022 fiscal year in which that game was played, UNLV reported about $7 million in total ticket sales. 

Now, Harper said his department is focused on seizing its forward momentum, especially under the auspices of successful football and basketball programs that have generated business meetings “that we haven't been able to get consistently for awhile.” 

“In my 13 years, excitement about football and basketball at the same time hasn’t been a normalcy,” Harper said. 


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