The decision to invite Brigham Young to the Las Vegas Bowl in 2005 was controversial and in many ways difficult to justify.
A ranked, one-loss Texas Christian was out there. So was Utah, which had just beaten the Cougars.
But the bowl is a business at least as much as a game, and business in 2005 was not what it is today.
The Las Vegas Bowl, in its 14th year, needed a boost, and no program was going to provide a bigger one than BYU. The committee couldn’t pass up the opportunity to invite the Cougars.
“We weren’t sure when we’d ever get a chance to do it again,” said UNLV athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy, who was the Las Vegas Bowl executive director then. “In those days, you didn’t know. It was the start of a really great relationship with BYU in our bowl game.”
The Las Vegas Bowl went from struggling to achieve the three-year average attendance of 25,000 needed at the time to retain its NCAA certification to blowing past that number. In 2005, the game’s per-team payout was $575,000; this year, BYU and Utah each will get $1.3 million for playing in the Dec. 19 matchup at Sam Boyd Stadium.
The Cougars lost to California 35-28 in the 2005 game, with the Bears led by future NFL talents Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett at running back and DeSean Jackson at wide receiver.
But BYU gave the bowl what it wanted — the first sellout in its history (40,053) and a buzz that hadn’t existed. The Cougars appeared the following four years as well, with every game selling out and the 2006 game against Oregon drawing 44,615 fans, still the largest crowd for a Las Vegas Bowl. BYU has drawn five of the bowl’s top seven crowds, all exceeding 40,000.
“I do remember (2005) well because I was the one out selling tickets and selling sponsorships,” current bowl executive director John Saccenti said. “We were in a good place; we weren’t in a great place. But we just couldn’t take that next step.
“All of the sudden, you have a sold-out event. It gets all this publicity. It changes the perception of everybody locally. What that does is it gives us the opportunity going forward next year to say, ‘Hey, get your tickets early. Don’t wait until later in the year.’ We started selling more tickets earlier and earlier.
“It changed everything for us.”
BYU’s appearance this year is its first since that five-year run that transformed the bowl from a forgettable event on the postseason calendar to one that regularly receives national attention.
To be fair, the Las Vegas Bowl already was making measurable strides before it invited BYU in 2005. The game was going to get the first selection of the Mountain West the following year, and the per-team payout was going to increase to $1 million. So it could have continued to progress even without the Cougars’ participation.
Getting BYU, though, moved the bowl from a local train to an express.
Consider BYU was having a so-so season in 2005, and yet the bowl committee knew it needed the Cougars, and needed them badly.
The Cougars were 6-5 and had just lost to Utah at home, 41-34 in overtime. That result also made the Utes 6-5, and it would’ve been just as easy for the committee to select Utah.
Or consider TCU’s case. The Horned Frogs were 10-1 and ranked 15th. These days, taking even BYU over such a quality team would be nearly unthinkable.
“I envision us taking the champion from here on out,” Kunzer-Murphy said in 2005. “The committee members’ next step, we believe, is to build the bowl. Going three or four deep (in the MW standings) is not something we want to do.”
The Las Vegas Bowl has since hosted its share of highly ranked teams, but after the five-year run with BYU, both sides wanted a change. Now enough time has passed that the bowl and BYU are again embracing each other, and the game is another sellout. The cheapest ticket on StubHub! on Saturday night was $155.
Because of contracts with the Mountain West and Pac-12, this looks to be BYU’s last appearance in this game for quite some time.
The bowl was forever changed by the first one.
“Anymore, the conference arrangements don’t allow you to take the back-to-back-to-back like what we did, but we were trying to build a bowl,” Kunzer-Murphy said. “BYU carried us. They carried us through the years, and we had good games and great participation.”
— Contact Mark Anderson at email@example.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him: @markanderson65