College sports are big business, and UNLV wants a larger share.
The Scarlet and Gray have been members of the Mountain West Conference since the league’s 1999 inception, and for the most part, it has been a positive marriage. The MWC has established itself as perhaps the premier mid-major league in the country over the past two decades.
But the gap between the smaller conferences and the “Power Five” conferences—the Southeastern Conference, the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Atlantic Coast—has also widened to an extreme proportion during that the span.
How good do the bigger conferences now have it? This year, the SEC will pay out around $50 million to each school in the league as part of its media rights deal. The Pac-12 and Big 12 payments will amount to more than $30 million per team.
Mountain West teams, meanwhile, collected $4 million each for their television contract.
Given that massive money gap, UNLV’s objective is clear: Get to a power conference by any means necessary.
It’s not an unattainable goal. San Diego State is in the process of proving that, with the Aztecs reportedly in line to join the Pac-12 as soon as they can negotiate an exit from the Mountain West. The major difference between San Diego State and UNLV, of course, is athletic success.
SDSU is a consistent winner in football, by far the most important sport in terms of generating revenue. And the Aztecs’ men’s basketball team, the other key revenue-generator, is coming off a run to the NCAA Tournament championship game.
UNLV basketball head coach Kevin Kruger says San Diego State can serve as a road map for other mid-major teams like UNLV with aspirations of upward mobility. “I do think there’s a number of teams in our conference that could do well with moving to another conference,” he says.
UNLV is trying to catch up and prove itself as a worthy addition whenever the next round of conference expansion comes around. The SEC and Big Ten are set to expand in 2024—Texas and Oklahoma will join the former, while UCLA and USC are headed to the latter—to create a de facto “Big Two,” which could create openings in the Pac-12 and Big 12, where UNLV would fit.
The school has made a big financial commitment to improve its football program, first by unveiling a new on-campus training facility, the Fertitta Football Complex, in 2019. More recently, UNLV made Barry Odom the Mountain West’s highest paid coach, with a salary of $1.95 million per year.
On the basketball side, UNLV is hoping an expensive, NIL-infused recruiting push can make NCAA Tournament appearances a regular occurrence again.
According to Kruger, earning an invitation to a power conference is a simple equation: UNLV will have to put consistent winners on the field until there’s an opening. “I think you continue to be ready,” he says, “staying competitive and continuing to get better, which I think we’re doing at UNLV.”
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