Unlv
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New FSM Feature: UNLV’s Path To A Power-5

Franchise Sports Media

 

The college sports landscape had a systematic shift last week when USC and UCLA left the Pac-12 Conference to move to the Big Ten in 2024. What does that mean for UNLV? They have a few paths that they could take that potentially lead them out of the Mountain West.

 

UNLV
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Funny, when news broke of USC and UCLA leaving the Pac-12, the first thing I thought of was the hook in the Jay-Z song “A Week Ago” on his In My Lifetime Volume 1 album. He says, “…Uh-huh, uh-huh, it was all good just a week ago…” 

I mean, for the most part, who wasn’t shocked at the news? In an ever-evolving college sports landscape, this news permanently changed college athletics forever, and the ripple effects are being felt in every conference. Almost every college athletic director not in the Big Ten or SEC was on their phones with their school presidents to see if they could find a way to join the Pac-12 and started to put together the gameplay for their university.

The Pac-12 said it was “extremely surprised and disappointed by the news coming out of UCLA and USC” on Thursday. The league reiterated its commitment to its existing schools and “potential members to pioneer the future of college athletics together.”

The Pac-12 Board of Directors met this morning and authorized the Conference to explore all expansion options,” the conference said in a statement. “The ten university presidents and chancellors remain committed to a shared mission of academic and athletic excellence on behalf of our student-athletes.

 

UNLV
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As with last summer’s realignment bombshell, when the SEC added Oklahoma and Texas, conferences and schools elsewhere immediately started taking stock of themselves. Universities were wondering where they fit into a larger college football picture that moves closer to a world with two power conferences (Big Ten, SEC) and everyone else.

UNLV was no different. Rebels athletic director Erick Harper, who was named full-time AD effective January 1st of 2022, can now attempt to do what UNLV fans have long hoped for, join a Power-5 conference.

Harper’s first move was to get in touch with UNLV president Keith Whitfield per the Las Vegas Sun. Whitfield and Harper need to be on the same page and look at everything to see the best option for the Rebels.

We’re making sure we are paying attention to the landscape because it can change in 24 hours, 48 hours, 72 hours,” Harper said via the Las Vegas Sun. “In this day and age, rumors are going to be swirling continuously. Obviously, the rumors started right away about what the Pac-12 is going to do and what the Big 12 is going to do.”

But is there a road that leads UNLV to a bigger conference and payday for the university? Yes. But like anything in life, there are always consequences. While the Pac-12 or Big 12 conference name means something, it doesn’t mean as much without a good product on the field in the larger markets. 

Let’s explore the options.

 

Join the Pac-12

 

UNLV Football
Photo Credit: TQ/Franchise Sports Media

The Pac-12’s media rights deal will come on the heels of what will be a blockbuster, market-resetting Big Ten deal, adding insult to injury. Those on the West Coast know that even the most optimistic projections could mean a $40 million to $50 million annual revenue gap between Big Ten schools and Pac-12 ones.

There have already been concerns about keeping pace with the Big Ten and SEC if the environment grows even more stratified and schools in those two conferences can spend nearly double that of their peers. But to attempt to keep up without the league’s two flagship schools? It seems almost impossible.

UNLV would benefit from the revenue a new Pac-12 media contract would generate, even with USC and UCLA leaving the conference. UNLV does have a few things going for them, one of which is Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff was the President of MGM Sports and Entertainment from 2018 until he took over the conference in 2021.

He knows the value of the Las Vegas market, its partners and powers brokers in the city, and what it brings to the table potentially. The Pac-12 already has its basketball tournament and media days in Las Vegas. Kliavkoff understands that Vegas is growing and is quickly becoming the world’s sports capital. With the NFL, NHL, UFC, boxing, and WNBA having success in Las Vegas, and with the NBA, MLS, and possibly MLB on their way, Kliavkoff knows he could take advantage of the city’s growth.

 

UNLV Football
Photo Credit: Trisha LaCoste/Franchise Sports Media

The next thing UNLV has going for them is the Fertitta Football Complex and Allegiant Stadium. The UNLV football program is the only program that has had over $2 billion invested into them since 2019 and is starting to see the benefits off the field and on it as well.

The Rebels have been one of the best recruiting teams in the Mountain West and have lured Power-5 recruits and transfers to Las Vegas using the Fertitta Football Complex and Allegiant Stadium as recruiting tools. All that is left is to see the results on the field, which doesn’t appear too far away.

Last season UNLV lost six games by one score or less, despite playing one of college football’s most challenging schedules. With a schedule that, on paper, is more favorable for the Rebels, UNLV could be ready to take the next step in their program’s development.

After last Thursday’s news, Oregon and Washington, now the two Pac-12’s marquee teams, are watching the league crumble beneath their feet. During realignment discussions across the country these past several months, there has been a feeling that not including Oregon would be like stiffing Nike, given benefactor Phil Knight’s influence. Washington would also add a significant foothold in the Pacific Northwest and the Seattle market.

From what I had heard late last night, it was ‘don’t be that confident that Oregon’s going to the Big Ten ASAP,Bruce Feldman told Rich Eisen last week on The Rich Eisen Show. “To me, on the surface of this, when I first heard that, you have the two L.A. schools, and then you have Washington and Oregon. Oregon is Portland and Washington is Seattle; those are big media markets. You have travel partners for a West Coast footprint, but I’m not sure it’s lining up that way.

“Again, Phil Knight’s as heavy a hitter as there is in global sports. Is he going to sit on the sidelines and let this school that he has built so much, he’s invested so much in the NIL piece to make sure Oregon’s going to be a player … What happens? Where do they land? It’s going to be a much-diminished Pac-12 … I’m not saying it feels more like the Mountain West; you still have programs that have been successful. It just doesn’t have the same command.”

 

UNLV vs San Diego State
Photo Credit: TQ/Franchise Sports Media

UNLV does have to consider its options as well. While the name of the Pac-12 would be huge for them, who will be left standing in the conference when the dust settles?

Reportedly, Oregon, Washington, and Stanford are waiting to see if Notre Dame also heads to the Big-10, and if so, they’ll likely attempt to join. That would leave the Pac-12 in a world of hurt, especially if Arizona, Arizona St., Colorado, and Utah decide to go to the Big 12. If those six schools leave, the Pac-12 would be left with just Cal, Oregon St., and Washington St. Would that be appealing to UNLV or San Diego State, who is also mentioned in joining the Pac-12?

It all depends on the type of money that would come their way.

The Pac-12 dispersed on average $33.58 million to the twelve schools the year before the pandemic. The Big-10’s twelve vested members took home about $54.29 million. UNLV currently makes just over $4 million annually from the Mountain West Conference media deal.

The Pac-12’s projected AAV dropped significantly from $500 million annually (approximately $42 million per school) to $300 million ($30 million) for the remaining ten teams after the league lost USC and UCLA, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

What will that number be with USC and UCLA gone and taking nearly 40% of the conference revenue with them? That is the billion-dollar question.

Rich Eisen and Feldman also noted that the Big-12 conference could look to add some West Coast markets.

If I was the Big 12,” Feldman said. “I’d be very intrigued by the idea of bringing in Phil Knight’s school, Washington, Utah; there are some interesting dominoes.”

That leads to the next scenario…

 

Join the Big 12

 

UNLV vs Iowa State
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The Big 12 must act fast, and they are once again. The Big 12 moved quickly in the wake of Oklahoma and Texas leaving last summer, negotiating the addition of BYU, Houston, UCF, and Cincinnati. On Tuesday, Arizona, Arizona St., Colorado, and Utah met with the Big 12 officials.

These schools would theoretically be added to the league along with Cincinnati, UCF, Houston, and BYU, which are already scheduled to join in 2023. As long-time members of the Pac-12, Arizona and Arizona St. are looking to abandon what might be perceived as a sinking ship. Members since 1978, this move would not be taken lightly by either institution.

Utah and Colorado have only been in the league since 2011, and Colorado was previously in the Big 12, so that would be a natural move back. Utah doesn’t have a long tradition in the conference, and the Pac-12 was the program’s first experience with what is considered a major conference.

If the Big 12 expanded to 16 teams, it would be a power move that shores the conference’s future and expands its TV market and recruiting footprint. But maybe, most importantly, it would undermine the Pac-12’s ability to salvage itself after losing USC and UCLA.

 

UNLV
Photo Credit: TQ/Franchise Sports Media

Would UNLV (and SDSU) even want to join the Pac-12 if all left is Cal, Oregon St., and Washington St.? Could UNLV and potentially SDSU find a way to the Big 12 if they are looking to expand to 16 or more teams? With the Big 12’s media deal set to expire, they could potentially add the Arizona schools, Colorado, Utah, UNLV, SDSU, and two more teams to get them to 20. Would a school like Boise St. interest them with their football history? What about Fresno St.? The Big 12 could then have the entire state of California covered (from the north to the south) and the Bulldogs’ football tradition.

On paper, a Big 12 Conference with those teams looks much better than the Pac-12 without them. UNLV already recruits well in the state of Texas under head coach Marcus Arroyo. Arroyo has ties to the state dating back to when he first started coaching when Texas was his area to recruit, and the Rebels roster is filled with players from the Lone Star State.

In this scenario, the Big 12 would add UNLV, San Diego St., Fresno St., Boise St., Utah, BYU, Arizona St., Utah, Arizona, and Colorado to the Big 12 West. And in the Big 12 East, it’s Baylor, Oklahoma St., TCU, Texas Tech, Iowa St., Cincinnati, UCF, Kansas St., Kansas, and West Virginia.

 

UNLV
Photo Credit: UNLV Athletics

There is also a connection to the Big 12 and UNLV AD Erick Harper. When Kansas St. was a member of the Big 8, Harper was an All-Conference defensive back for the Wildcats. Harper also has a connection with the University of Arizona, where he worked before coming to UNLV.

On Tuesday morning Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports reported that “The Big 12 is involved in deep discussions to add multiple Pac-12 programs as a way to shore up its membership…” and that “There is also consideration of adding Oregon and Washington to make the Big 12 an 18-team league, the largest in the FBS. A merger of the Big 12 and Pac-12, in some form, is also a possibility.

‘Everything is on the table,” said one Big 12 source to Dodd in the report.

As for UNLV, they need to be proactive and aggressive. If the Big 12 is the right move for them, they needed to be on the phone with them, like last Tuesday, and pitch their case. It was estimated that members of a 12-team Big 12 would earn $52 million by 2029. That number would surely increase should the conference expand to 20 teams. UNLV can’t miss out on that type of opportunity; if they did, shame on them.

So that leaves one last possibility…

 

Stay in an expanded Mountain West

 

UNLV sv San Jose State
Photo Credit: Trisha LaCoste/Franchise Sports Media

Suppose UNLV and the rest of the schools miss out on joining either the Pac-12 or Big 12, and Cal, Washington St., Oregon St., and possibly Stanford are also left on the outside looking in. In that case, they could potentially be added to the conference and add some cache to the Mountain West. That wouldn’t be financially lucrative to the conference or those schools and would be viewed as a missed opportunity for all. Honestly, I don’t see Stanford or Cal entertaining that idea, and they would most likely go independent.

This isn’t the glamorous or sexy option, and honestly, it’s the one that puts UNLV in no better position than now. What they would have to do is win. Win in every sport, in recruiting, in marketing their athletic programs and the school, and become a national brand once again. Is that something that they could do? They could. But I also know a lot of alumni, fans, and supporters that aren’t as enthusiastic about that happening based on experience and history.

 

UNLV vs Hawai'i
Photo Credit: Quincy Hatcher/Franchise Sports Media

What could happen is the Mountain West changing its name (or re-brand) to the Pac-18 Conference, keeping Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff as the commissioner, and allowing him to lead the re-brand into the future. The Mountain West used to be a forward-thinking conference and was always trying to innovate, but in recent years they have gotten stale and reactive. Kliavkoff has done an excellent job finding NTR (non-traditional revenue) and new ways for the Pac-12 to make money. He understands entertainment and how it could translate into revenue.

While it isn’t backing the Brinks truck into the conference, it does allow the schools and Kliavkoff to recalibrate and set their own path. For UNLV, it would give Harper and the athletic programs a little more time to continue to develop a foundation for winning and establishing a national brand.

It may not be the instant cash flow that Rebels fans want and are hoping for, but it could be the springboard to a better future on the field and financially.

 

You can purchase your 2022 UNLV Football Tickets by clicking HERE or at www.unlvtickets.com.

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-Joe Arrigo   Franchise Sports Media

Follow Joe on Twitter and Instagram: @JoeArrigoFSM

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