UNLV football’s success on the field translates into success on the financial side
The UNLV Rebels football team is in the midst of its best effort on the gridiron in 10 years.
And when the proceeds are counted, 2023 could end up as another profitable season for a football program that long took a back seat behind the Runnin’ Rebels men’s basketball team that routinely filled the Thomas & Mack Center and won the NCAA championship in 1990 under coach Jerry Tarkanian.
In the fiscal year that ended in June 2022, the Rebels reported more than $1.4 million in football revenue after losing money in each of the prior three fiscal years, two of which were affected by COVID-19.
Despite Saturday’s 44-20 loss to Boise State in the Mountain West Conference championship game, this year’s 9-4 Rebels secured a winning record for the first time since 2013 and an invitation to play Kansas in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl on Dec. 26 in Phoenix.
The postseason bowl appearance is the team’s first since 2013 and just its fifth since the school started playing NCAA football in 1978.
The success on the field and in the financial ledgers was predicted in 2016 when a group led by the late casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson proposed a public funding package to help build a domed football stadium in Las Vegas that would be shared by the then-Oakland Raiders and UNLV as a way to boost tourism and offer a financial lift to the school’s Division 1 football program.
In the end, the Raiders took the lead on what became the $1.9 billion, 65,000-seat Allegiant Stadium. But sharing the stadium with the Rebels came with the promise of using an NFL venue rent-free that would provide a pipeline for additional revenue and help in attracting recruits.
Attendance for the team’s six games at Allegiant Stadium this year averaged 23,660, the highest figure in the three years the venue has served as the Rebels home field. In their final two years at their previous home, Sam Boyd Stadium, UNLV averaged 16,822 fans in 2018 and 19,864 fans in 2019.
For the first time since joining the Mountain West in 1999, UNLV on Saturday hosted the championship game, which had an attendance of 31,473 — the second-largest audience to watch a home UNLV game at Allegiant. Despite the loss, the season was viewed as a success given that preseason college football prognosticators gave the Rebels little chance of championship.
In September, the Rebels beat Vanderbilt on a last-second field goal, marking the first time UNLV defeated a school from the football powerhouse Southeastern Conference. A month later, UNLV beat in-state rival Nevada for the second consecutive season. Last week, five Rebels were named to the all-Mountain West First Team, while star quarterback Jayden Maiava was named the conference’s freshman player of the year and kicker Jose Pizano was the special teams player of the year
Meanwhile, Rebels first-year Coach Barry Odom was named the conference’s coach of the year and is a finalist for the NCAA’s national coach of the year award. The former Missouri head coach and Arkansas defensive coordinator’s name has also been mentioned in connection with several major college head coaching vacancies. Odom said this week he is not interested in leaving UNLV.
“If a coach has been successful, his name is going to be brought up with any openings out there,” said UNLV athletic director Erick Harper in an interview. “We are in continuous communication, regardless of what's going on. We have an open line of dialogue all the time.”
Harper, who became UNLV’s athletic director in January 2022 after serving as senior associate athletic director for development for nine years, said success on the field has directly translated to improved finances for the program off the field.
In addition to increased football ticket sales, he said last week that the school has seen a revenue boost from team merchandise sales and private donations sought through the Rebel Up campaign, an effort to raise $150 million to enhance the entire UNLV athletic program.
UNLV also earned a $1.5 million payout in September when the Rebels faced Michigan in Ann Arbor, losing 35-7 to the Wolverines.
In October, the Las Vegas Raiders Foundation and team owner Mark Davis donated $1 million to UNLV’s athletic department. Harper said at least 95 percent of the donation would go toward the football program, which in turn thanked the Raiders by renaming the theater-like team meeting and film room in its training facility. after the late Raiders owner Al Davis, Mark’s father.
“UNLV was one of the first places that I visited when we were thinking about coming to Las Vegas,” Davis said at the announcement. “We’re now roommates at Allegiant Stadium.”
Harper said having Allegiant as a venue also helps other UNLV sports teams attract recruits.
“It comes into play for recruitment, not only for football, but for other sports,” Harper said. “Coaches will bring in recruits on the weekend and they get to see the excitement of what goes on with a football game. It makes a difference in the recruiting process.”
Filling Allegiant Stadium
The venue is being credited for much of the team’s financial success.
UNLV doesn’t pay rent to use Allegiant Stadium, with the school covering just the operating expenses, such as personnel and changeover fees associated with converting the field and stadium interiors from UNLV’s logos to the Raiders.
At Sam Boyd Stadium, UNLV collected revenue from all ticket sales and scant parking revenue from fans who chose to pay for preferred parking in a paved lot adjacent to the main entrance. Otherwise, parking at Sam Boyd was free of charge. UNLV also collected revenue from concessions.
“Obviously, our expenses were much lower at Sam Boyd,” Harper said.
The school now keeps ticket sale proceeds, parking fees for lots on the stadium grounds and revenue from concession sales, which are shared with the outside vendors.
Legislation approved in a 2016 special session approved spending $750 million in public money through a 0.88 percent increase in hotel room taxes to help pay for Allegiant Stadium. UNLV, through a 10-year agreement with the Las Vegas Stadium Authority — which oversees operations of Allegiant — can draw up to $3.5 million a year from the room tax revenue to cover any shortfalls.
The $3.5 million figure was the estimated cost for UNLV to play games at Sam Boyd Stadium, an aging venue on the east side of Las Vegas that opened in 1971 as Las Vegas Stadium. The 32,000-seat facility took on the name Silver Bowl six years later and was renamed after the founder of Boyd Gaming Corp. when the casino operator donated funds for a renovation.
Applied Analysis principal analyst Jeremy Aguero, who helped draft the 2016 legislation for Allegiant Stadium, said the idea was to give UNLV a way to move out of the old stadium. Aguero and other community leaders wanted UNLV to play in a stadium suitable for a top football program.
“More people attending activities around the team will go a long way toward helping the university establish a revenue-generating trend that can help it do the things it’s trying to achieve,” he said.
Tony Gladney, who has been following UNLV football since his playing days with the Rebels in the mid-1980s and throughout his career as a corporate gaming executive in Las Vegas, said the business community recognizes success on the field.
“From a business perspective and an engagement perspective, a winning UNLV football program has a way of rallying the community support,” said Gladney, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion for MGM Resorts International.
“It’s exciting because UNLV was the only game in town,” Gladney said. “As a player, you want to perform in front of a big crowd.”
The move to Allegiant occurred after the UNLV football program moved into the Fertitta Football Complex, a 75,000-square-foot training center funded with private donations, primarily from the Fertitta family, majority shareholders in Red Rock Resorts.
‘A very, very good year’
Harper said the expenses and revenue from the 2022 and 2023 seasons are still being determined and the school has to submit the report to the Stadium Authority board for approval. UNLV submitted a report for 2021 from the Stadium Authority, but did not seek to draw down any funds from room tax revenue. The Stadium Authority has yet to make the 2021 report public.
“This year has been very, very good, just from an attendance perspective and we’re doing some different things in the stadium so there haven’t been as much in changeover fees,” Harper said.
The school will also receive a payout from the ticket sales for Saturday’s loss over Boise State. The game was overseen by the conference and ticket sale proceeds will be shared with the two schools. As the home team, UNLV receives the larger share of ticket revenue.
“It’s not a typical game day budget that UNLV has to pay for as they would with other home games throughout the year,” said Javan Hedlund, head of communications for the Mountain West Conference. “They operate it like a home game, but the Mountain West ends up paying for the costs.”
The game was only the second time UNLV used Allegiant’s second-level seating sections. In September 2021, Iowa State beat the Rebels 48-3 in a non-conference game in front of 35,183 fans. Roughly 70 to 80 percent of the crowd were Iowa State supporters, cheering on the Cyclones’ quarterback Brock Purdy — now with the San Francisco 49ers.
UNLV will also receive an honorarium for playing in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl at Chase Field in Phoenix, with the money used to offset expenses, such as travel and hotel costs. The school keeps the remaining funds. Officials have not announced its payouts to schools, but the 2022 edition of the bowl game paid out $1.6 million to participating schools.
UNLV has other revenue streams through the Mountain West, such as a television contract for football that pays conference powerhouse Boise State $5 million a year and the other schools, including UNLV, $3.2 million a year.
On Friday, the Mountain West announced a football scheduling agreement with Oregon State and Washington State, two schools left orphaned when the Pac-12 disbanded. The schools will also pay the conference $14 million next year as part of the agreement.
Yahoo Sports reported the $14 million would raise each school’s television contract share to $4.5 million and Boise's to $6.3 million.
It was also a good year financially for Odom, who earned $1.75 million in the first year of a five-year contract. Odom also earned a combined $125,000 in bonuses for reaching the conference title game, making a bowl game and winning Mountain West coach of the year.