UNLV Football and the Business of Modern College Athletics.


by Jake Runyon (@jakerunyon)

Picture a UNLV athletic team that has been struggling for years. They have poor attendance and poor community support, and the on-field results of said team have been disappointing for more than a decade. There are talks around the athletic department that this program is going to be cut.

Then out of the blue, a local UNLV supporter makes a generous donation that keeps the program alive.

A few years later the team has improved, the community support has also increased and the program is as healthy as it has ever been.

This is not a fairy tale. This is what actually happened with UNLV soccer.

In 2011, when UNLV was considering dumping the men’s soccer program, the Engelstad Family Foundation donated $1,000,000 to UNLV. Then athletic director, Jim Livengood,when asked about the future of UNLV men’s soccer said, “It’s not a question anymore. UNLV is going to have men’s soccer.”

Just recently, that UNLV soccer team that was on the brink of being cut three years earlier, just won the WAC championship, and  reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1988.

Today, UNLV football find itself in a similar predicament. With the resignation of Bobby Hauck, the head coaching job is vacant once again. The leading candidate to replace him is Tony Sanchez, the Head Coach of local high school juggernaut, Bishop Gorman. But that is not all. The Fertittas are allegedly endorsing Sanchez, with a report that the Station Casinos, and UFC owners are willing to donate 30-50 million dollars to the lowly football program. The Fertittas are denying this report, but where there is smoke, there is fire.

There are some rebels fans that argue that UNLV is “selling” the head coaching position to the highest bidder. Luckily, those fans are in the minority. UNLV finds itself at crossroads in college athletics. While the rich keep getting the richer, the programs that struggle continue to find themselves in deeper and deeper financial holes. For a few programs around the country, dismembering the football team is an option being floated around. University of Alabama-Birmingham has already decided to take that step, much to the disappointment of their fanbase.

To those UNLV fans that argue that UNLV athletics would be “better off” without football; name a college basketball program besides Gonzaga that has been consistently competetive in college basketball? Football is the cash-cow; that for most colleges, helps to feed the other athletic teams. Ohio State and Texas basketball wouldn’t be as consistently good if they didn’t benefit from football programs that bring in a giant revenue. Even schools more known for their basketball like North Carolina and Kentucky benefit from having football program.

To those UNLV fans that say that handing over the reins to the Fertittas is a “slippery slope”; There is some truth that. Handing over a defunct athletic program that loses money year in and year out to a couple of local billionaires who have done more for the local Las Vegas economy than anyone might open the door to other local philanthropists willing to do the same (GASP). Look at what the checkbook of Phil Knight and T. Boone Pickens has done to Oregon and Oklahoma State. I’m sure the athletic departments at those schools regret selling their soul to their local fan and supporter.

To those UNLV fans that say Tony Sanchez “isn’t the right person for the job, and has no experience”; if finding the right person for the job is so easy, how come UNLV has been so inept in finding a head coach that could stick for more than 5 years? Fact, there has never been a head coach at UNLV to last more than 6 years. UNLV has tried every other type of coach: The former nat’l champ (John Robinson), the highly touted coordinator (Mike Sanford), the up and coming head coach (Bobby Hauck). Nothing has worked up to this point. A high school coach is the one option UNLV hasn’t tried yet, Not only is Sanchez familiar with the local football landscape, he is also a close colleague to the top high school programs across the nation. If Sanchez can convince parents to let their teenage sons leave home and come play football at Bishop Gorman, why wouldn’t he able to do the same for UNLV.

Of course,  there is the possibility that Sanchez might fail. It wouldn’t be a suprise to anyone if 5 years from now that UNLV was once again trying to find a head coach to right the ship for UNLV. But at least UNLV will have some deeper pockets then and hopefully, a program that is self-sufficient financially. That is what you would call “failing upwards”.

If you still believe that big-time college athletics isn’t a slave to the mighty dollar sign, then you are mistaken. Not only is money the byproduct from high-level college football, but it is also its fuel. The rich get richer, and the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” widens every season. If money can’t save UNLV football… the nothing can.

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