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UNLV’s Power 5 pursuit slowed by academics, market size

Updated April 15, 2023 - 2:23 pm

A popular theory across the country right now: That if San Diego State hadn’t already secured itself an invitation to the Pac-12, its recent run to a national championship game in basketball all but clinched such a reality for the Mountain West school.

That the Aztecs at this point are as close to a shoo-in as imaginable.

And still, no public whispers about UNLV and its possible inclusion in a Power Five league.

Not even a hint things might be trending that way.

And that’s one mighty big head-scratcher.

It’s not an overly weak resume for the Rebels. Improvement definitely needs to be made in certain areas, but the entire picture is worth a second and perhaps third look from a major conference like the Pac-12.

Just not sure that has happened.

Holding things back

“You might not hear their name, but I don’t think at all UNLV hasn’t at least been in conversations,” said former UNLV athletic director Jim Livengood. “You know how these things go with most people — everything has to happen now or tonight or certainly by tomorrow morning. It doesn’t work like that. Just because UNLV hasn’t been mentioned (publicly) doesn’t mean they haven’t been discussed.”

It at least should be. Lots of reasons at which to point.

So what’s holding everything back?

It’s believed UNLV wasn’t among the four schools the Pac-12 voted to explore for expansion.

John Canzano is a veteran journalist who has covered the Pac-12 expansion issue more than anyone nationally. He agrees there are positives to UNLV’s pursuit. Allegiant Stadium as a centerpiece facility. Potential for gaming sponsorships.

“But the Pac-12 presidents,” Canzano said, “are academics first.”

And here’s a potential problem for UNLV: Perception versus reality.

This isn’t 40 years go when talking how the school should be defined academically. It has made more-than-favorable strides. Has a law school and dental school and medical school. A research institute. One of the country’s best hospitality schools.

But it also ranks 146th in public universities by U.S. News and World Report, perhaps too low for some of the highbrow presidents across the Pac-12.

“The things UNLV has done in terms of what people know about or read about or hear about have nothing to do with athletics and everything to do with what they have done in terms of graduate studies,” Livengood said. “They’ve done great work in a lot of areas that might not be as sexy to read about.”

It has been reported that the Pac-12 CEO group identified three criteria for expansion candidates — academic/culture, geography and media market. UNLV is fine with the second. It’s better than most think with the first and could be better on the third. That should come in time.

The market continues to grow. As 40th nationally, it has around 870,000 television households. It would be the smallest in the Pac-12 today, right after Salt Lake City (1.1 million).

For comparison, San Diego has 1.13 million and Dallas-Fort Worth (where a reported Pac-12 target of Southern Methodist resides) 2.96 million.

But the Aztecs also exist in the coveted Southern California market, which will not have Pac-12 team after the impending departure of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten.

Market size matters in this race. Maybe more than anything. Yes, more than any lack of football success many point to when debating why UNLV might struggle to earn a Power Five invite.

In the cards?

George Kliavkoff is a Pac-12 commissioner and former president of entertainment and sports at MGM Resorts. He knows better than most about what Las Vegas and specifically UNLV could offer. How his conference already makes the town home for its most important championships in football and basketball.

And still, not even a whisper.

Maybe it comes down to this: That this round of expansion isn’t in the cards for UNLV. That over the next few years or so, it could better position itself for inclusion. That it becomes a more desirable option in the eyes of those making such decisions.

Collegiate athletics continue to evolve. The expansion and realignment process isn’t near concluded. UNLV just has to be ready if and when the call comes.

But for now, the telephone has remained silent.

At least publicly.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter

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