Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Driving 4 1/2 hours to Bakersfield, Calif., on a weeknight is not what UNLV basketball fan Trevor Hayes considers the ideal road trip, but he’s planning to do it on Jan. 5 for one reason.
It’s the only way the UNLV graduate will be able to see his Runnin’ Rebels play that night. Not all of UNLV’s games are televised, a source of disappointment to Hayes and other Rebel faithful.
“I know a bunch of people who are going to Cal State Bakersfield to watch us play a bad team, and it’s just because the game’s not on TV,” he said.
Just last week, Rebel faithful were denied a telecast of UNLV’s back-and-forth, double-overtime thriller of a road win over UC Santa Barbara. After hearing complaints about that game not being shown, UNLV officials made special arrangements with Cox Communications to locally air Sunday’s game at Wichita State University, which also hadn’t been scheduled to be telecast to local viewers.
The then No. 18-ranked Rebs lost that game to the unranked Shockers, but Hayes and pals were given their scarlet-and-gray fix, at least until the next viewing crisis. That happens to be Wednesday, when the Rebels play Cal State San Marcos at Orleans Arena.
So what gives with the TV schedule?
UNLV is a member of the Mountain West Conference, which controls the games played from venues within its own conference but not from nonconference settings, where there are no guarantees that road games will be beamed back to Southern Nevada. That UC Santa Barbara game? The Gauchos are members of the Big West Conference, and in college basketball the home team and its conference decide whether a game will be telecast. Big West and UC Santa Barbara officials balked at showing the game. The result: no telecast. That’s the reality of big-time college basketball.
As for the San Marcos game, the Mountain West Conference TV network doesn’t televise all interconference home games involving league teams. It’s not financially feasible, said Javan Hedlund, Mountain West associate commissioner for communications.
The conference’s TV partners "have a budget that they have to adhere to," he said. “They’re going to try to do as many as they can within that budget, but they can’t do every single game.”
UNLV is in the sixth year of a 10-year TV contract in which all of its conference games are broadcast on the Mountain West TV network. The deal pays $1.5 million annually to the eight member schools. By comparison, each Pacific-12 school earns nearly $20 million annually from its contract with the Fox Sports family of regional networks.
The financial disparity is largely driven by the Pac-12’s larger TV markets — Los Angeles, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle, among them — as well as the success of the conference’s powerhouse football teams, a double-dynamic lacked by the Mountain West, which has teams in second- and third-tier markets. The moneymaker in college sports is football and the viewers drawn by the top teams.
D.J. Allen, UNLV’s senior associate athletic director, said university officials are sensitive to the viewing needs of their fans.
“We need to find a way with all the variables that are out there for our fans to watch the Rebels on TV as much as possible,” he said. “What you’re trying to do in the sports industry is create loyal fans.”
Alternatives could include increased live Internet streaming of UNLV games. Yet even that could face roadblocks with conference officials balking against the streaming of games that conflict with games on The Mtn. cable network. Effective TV programming is about filling holes in programming schedules, and Mountain West officials do not want images from live games competing with one another.
Critics complain that The Mtn., as the conference network is known, lacks the cache of ESPN and its affiliated channels, which broadcast UNLV games in the early 2000s. Critics note that few people watch The Mtn., which isn’t offered on basic Cox cable in Las Vegas. Besides, they say, star recruits want to play on the ESPN family of networks, not a regional sports network based in Colorado Springs.
Hedlund disagrees, noting that fewer than eight UNLV basketball games were broadcast annually when the conference was affiliated with the mother ship of sports networks.
“It is it better to have four games broadcast on ESPN than 20 games on our own network?” Hedlund asked. “Maybe in some people’s minds, the answer would be yes. In others’ the answer would be no. I love having 20 games broadcast and seeing the Rebs a lot as opposed to the old days.”
Hayes said he researched other ranked college teams and found that the Rebels’ TV schedule wasn’t unusually light. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the team will play on TV more than 20 times during its 32-game regular season this year.
In another bit of good news for fans, those with access to the Big Ten Conference’s TV network can catch the Rebels on the road over the next two weekends as the team travels to Wisconsin on Dec. 10 and Illinois on Dec. 17.
Hedlund said a Las Vegas-based TV affiliate could telecast nonconference games that fall through the cracks. However, managers at local stations have their own contracts to consider — including production expenses and obligations to carry network programming.
Hedlund said the cost of producing a game ranged from $18,000 to $25,000 for a standard-definition broadcast up to $40,000 for high-def. It would also be necessary for a local affiliate to pay a rights fee for the telecast, which Hedlund said would likely be less than $10,000. Then, there are production logistics to work out — such as staffing and scheduling.
Emily Neilson eyes the economic landscape of big-time college basketball, and the president and general manager of KLAS Channel 8 in Las Vegas believes her station is an intuitive outlet for UNLV basketball games. After all, Viacom TV, which owns CBS and Turner Sports, has a 14-year, $10.8 billion contract that began this year to broadcast the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
The Runnin’ Rebels’ sole regular-season appearance on CBS is scheduled for 10 a.m. Feb. 18 when they play the New Mexico Lobos in Albuquerque. The CBS Sports college cable channel also airs the occasional UNLV basketball game. Neilson would like to see more of the team’s games on her station, but putting them on isn’t easy. Multiple interests are involved, which complicates the transaction.
In the days before the creation of The Mtn., that wasn’t a problem. KLAS picked up many of the Rebels games that ESPN didn’t air.
“I’ve had a lot of viewer complaints,” said Kathy Kramer, program director at KLAS. “We used to get a lot of their games, but not anymore.”
So how deep is the local audience for UNLV basketball games? The ratings for the Runnin’ Rebels are consistent if not spectacular, said one local TV executive who requested anonymity.
“In reality, there are so many people who live here who are from somewhere else and lack an immediate connection to the university,” the executive said. “The numbers get better the more successful the team is. During the NCAA (tournament), people get behind them and watch the games.”
Nonetheless, KLAS’ Kramer is convinced that the local viewing audience could be trained to watch games much earlier in the season, particularly if the Rebels have more thrilling victories like they did against then-top rated North Carolina on Nov. 26.
“Right now, it’s pretty good with all the buzz that’s going on,” Kramer said. “I think the TV audience is out there.”