When she was executive director of the Las Vegas Bowl, Tina Kunzer-Murphy faced a similar moment in 2005.
Unless attendance picked up, that bowl was in grave danger of disappearing like sponsors during a scandal.
Attendance — helped immensely by the regular appearances of Brigham Young and then Boise State — did indeed pick up and made the pre-Christmas game a success.
Now Kunzer-Murphy, who on Monday officially became UNLV’s interim athletic director, is doing what she can to increase attendance at Rebels football games. That program needs to meet the meager average attendance minimum of 15,000 or face possible NCAA sanctions.
“We’re going to hit the number,” Kunzer-Murphy insisted.
Hitting that number will be much easier should the Rebels draw a large crowd at Sam Boyd Stadium for their Sept. 7 home opener against Arizona. The game nearly moved to Glendale, Ariz., for a potentially fat payday, but keeping it in Las Vegas could reap an even greater financial windfall for the struggling program.
UNLV has created a slogan for that game called “Sam Jam 2013” and for the season called “Rebels United.”
“We’re trying to unite everybody by the football team and (coach) Bobby Hauck and make people understand that football is essential,” marketing and advertising director Chris Bonnell said.
Officials would love the game against Arizona to sell out, but mostly they want a strong crowd to establish momentum for the rest of the season. Tickets for that game will be given to students during orientation week, and they will be provided with free bus transportation.
“It’s our belief that if people come and have a different experience that they’ll want to come back,” Kunzer-Murphy said.
Other efforts also will be made to draw a large crowd, including marketing to Arizona fans.
“Summer is usually a pretty slow period, but we’re ramping up, which is nice,” said media relations director Mark Wallington, who oversees football.
Wallington is part of a small committee that meets weekly to discuss football only, a first for UNLV.
“I’d say this is the most emphasis (on football) since John Robinson was here,” Wallington said of the Hall of Famer who coached the Rebels from 1999 to 2004.
Robinson was the last coach to lead UNLV to the postseason, beating Arkansas in the 2000 Las Vegas Bowl. Nothing packs the stands quite like winning.
Those marketing the Rebels don’t have the luxury of promoting such a program, but they believe this is an improved team and will try to push players such as running back Tim Cornett, quarterback Nick Sherry and wide receiver Devante Davis into the public conscious.
Hauck already has been out in the valley meeting with potential sponsors.
“I really think Bobby and his players are some of our best marketing tools,” Kunzer-Murphy said. “We have a very short time to do an awful lot of work.”
Some ticket prices could be tweaked as well, and one idea being considered is a retro night in which concession prices are set back to what they were 20 years ago.
Kunzer-Murphy also said companies will be encouraged to return unused tickets during the season so UNLV can distribute them to high school and Pop Warner teams and various organizations to build a following among young fans.
“If this sounds familiar to you, it’s because it’s some of the things we did to encourage people to come out to our bowl game when I started 13 years ago,” Kunzer-Murphy said. “We can’t control what goes on on the field, but we can try to create an atmosphere where people come out and are supportive.”
That includes changes to Sam Boyd Stadium, which will have scarlet and gray plastered all over the building.
An added emphasis will be placed on tailgating to get fans excited long before kickoff.
Increasing attendance is especially important this season after last season’s 2-11 record drew an average home crowd of 15,208. The NCAA requires teams to average at least 15,000 fans over a two-year period or face a 10-year probationary period, during which failure to meet requirements could result in bowl bans and banishment from the Football Bowl Subdivision.
But whether UNLV, or any other school, would face such a severe penalty as losing top-level status is questionable. No school has been demoted from the FBS level.
Not that UNLV wants to find out.
“It gives you a sense of urgency, but it also gives you a real clear focus of what we need to do,” Kunzer-Murphy said. “I like that. Everybody’s buying in.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.