Before Desiree Reed-Francois took the microphone at her introductory press conference to be named UNLV’s next athletic director, Len Jessup laid out an extraordinary goal.
“Part of the strategy is making ourselves more formidable in the Mountain West and ultimately positioning ourselves down the road for a move to a power five conference,” the university’s president said.
As the monetary gap continues to grow between the power conferences and the rest of college athletics, every small school should be aiming to reach one of the power five conferences. But Jessup set it out as the goal of Reed-Francois’ tenure. And it is unfair, as she has very little control over UNLV’s move to a major conference.
Outside of athletics, UNLV needs improved academics to garner interest from a power conference. UNLV is trying to reach the R1 level in the Carnegie Foundation’s rankings of research schools. All 12 of the Pac-12 members are R1 universities, while UNLV sits at the R2 level.
Making that step up improves UNLV’s chances at a power conference, but the new athletic director can’t do anything about that. Reed-Francois also has no ability to influence Las Vegas’ attractiveness as a media market, which may be the most important factor in conference expansion.
Television deals are the main money maker for power conferences. The SEC and Big 10 both pay out over $30 million to each school from their television contracts; UNLV will receive $1.1 million next year from the Mountain West’s television contract. It is clear why UNLV wants to make the jump up.
Conference expansion is a race to increase television money. The more attractive a media market a school resides in, the better its chances of inclusion. Las Vegas is 40th in the Nielsen ratings, a decent ranking but not a must-have market. Again, Reed-Francois can’t control this aspect of conference expansion.
The shiniest new toy for UNLV to try and appease a major conference is the soon-to-be-built Las Vegas Raiders stadium. UNLV will play its home games in the new dome, but we don’t know how much of a home field advantage he Rebels will have, as the Raiders want control over the field markings.
While the new stadium gets UNLV out of Sam Boyd Stadium, being the secondary tenant of a brand-new stadium isn’t something a power conference will care about. Only two power conference teams, Miami and Pitt, play in stadiums that house NFL teams. Playing in front of 20,000 fans in a 65,000-seat stadium while having to pay rent isn’t a great deal for UNLV.
The top aspect that athletic directors are judged is in the hiring and firing of coaches. But Reed-Francois won’t be able to make her mark on the two major sports for a while. Both Marvin Menzies and Tony Sanchez are under contract through 2021 with substantial buyout clauses that are on a per year basis.
To make a change at the two most important spots in the athletic department, Reed-Francois will have to raise money. (And that’s after she deals with the nearly $5 million deficit the department has.) So, she is likely stuck with Menzies and Sanchez, which is a harsh way of phrasing it considering Menzies took over a mess, but did take New Mexico State to five NCAA Tournaments in five years, and Sanchez has improved his win total in back-to-back seasons. But the first few years of Reed-Francois’ tenure will be determined by coaches hired by Tina Kunzer-Murphy.
But Desiree Reed-Francois can help make UNLV more formidable in the Mountain West. She needs to find money in the Las Vegas community. UNLV was supposed to have broken ground by now on the Fertitta Football Complex, but the fundraising isn’t done. UNLV’s budget deficit is largely due to slacking attendance at Runnin’ Rebel games. Can she find a way to make UNLV less dependent on basketball attendance?
Winning is the number one factor in attendance, but UNLV needs to establish its place in a changing market. The Golden Knights are here. The NHL is a beatable competitor in Las Vegas, but the NFL is not. The Raiders will dominate the market, so UNLV has to figure out its place in the next few years before the Raiders move in, or risk falling out of everyone’s mind.
Desiree Reed-Francois has a lot to fix once she takes over on June 1, but expecting her to guide UNLV into a power conference isn’t a fair benchmark.