OPINION: UNLV’s future depends on stadium

When the subject of University of Nevada, Las Vegas athletics comes up, the consistent success of the men’s basketball program — the flagship sport for the school, and one that’s actually profitable — carries the conversation. The flip side of that dialogue, however, is the struggling football program. The Rebels have posted two-win seasons in seven of the past nine years, including the past three, and they’ve had just one winning season in the past 18 years. Football subsidizes every other sport at most major universities; at UNLV it’s a money-loser.

That creates a major problem, as noted in an extensive report Sunday by the Review-Journal’s Mark Anderson, because the future of the UNLV athletic department depends largely on football. As such, the future of UNLV athletics depends largely on getting a new stadium. No matter how great the men’s basketball squad is, in Division I college sports, football moves the dial. And a losing team playing at an outdated venue many miles from campus is a losing proposition.

Mr. Anderson pointed out that UNLV athletics has run up deficits of more than $5 million in three of the past four years, despite state support of roughly $7 million each year. Last year, the football program alone lost $3.5 million, on top of an operating budget of $5.24 million.

In this era of tight budgets, Nevada taxpayers can’t be expected to provide an annual bailout for sports. As Mr. Anderson noted, UNLV athletics might need to become entirely self-sufficient in order to remain viable, and a campus-based stadium may be the only path to such viability.

That said, UNLV can’t be the only beneficiary. A new stadium must be modern and convenient enough to attract more special events — think concerts, soccer, etc. — that will grow the tourist economy. And UNLV’s stake has to be such that the athletic department can achieve self-sufficiency.

Such is the challenge not only for a new athletic director — a position UNLV President Neal Smatresk aims to fill in the next few months — but for the stadium authority board created last month and headed by Don Snyder, previously the point man for The Smith Center for the Performing Arts. Mr. Anderson’s report underscores the importance of the stadium authority board succeeding in creating a stadium plan that’s ready for prime time ahead of the 2015 Legislature and has the support of the gaming community and state lawmakers of both parties. Of course, if public dollars are to be used, then taxpayers also must have a stake in the returns.

UNLV football opens its 2013 campaign Thursday at Minnesota. It’s a 4 p.m. kickoff on the Big Ten Network (Cox Channel 312). That’s channel 1312 for high definition.

Unless UNLV gets a high-definition stadium, the future viability of the team and the entire athletic department is in jeopardy.

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