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Pack the Mack? Poor attendance taking toll on UNLV

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L.E. Baskow

UNLV guard Jalen Poyser (5) makes another play call during their game versus TCU at the Thomas & Mack Center on Friday, Nov. 25, 2016.

About 10 minutes into UNLV’s home game against Incarnate Word on Dec. 14, two fans moved from their seats in the upper bowl to a pair of aisle seats in the lower level. They stretched out, put their feet up and made themselves comfortable in a sea of empty chairs.

After halftime, they moved even closer to the court, finally ending up just a handful of rows from the floor, taking in the action from a location near halfcourt usually reserved for high rollers and VIPs. They had their pick of some of the best seats in the house.

The announced attendance for that game was 8,202, but there were no more than half that many souls actually present for the Rebels’ 92-64 win at the Thomas & Mack Center.

And that’s a problem for UNLV.

For years — generations, really — UNLV has been dependent on ticket revenue from men’s basketball games to subsidize a large amount of the athletic department budget. But recent years have seen ticket sales decline to the point where the university is starting to feel the crunch, leading to cutbacks and staff reductions.

“Men’s basketball is a very important source of revenue for us,” said Darryl Seibel, UNLV's deputy director of athletics for external relations. “With respect to revenue generation, it’s our flagship program. When we see a decrease in revenue there, it’s something we take very seriously.”

Ticket sales for UNLV games have steadily decreased over the last six years, correlating directly with the decline in the team’s on-court performance. In Lon Kruger’s final year at the helm in 2010-11, UNLV drew a total of 225,301 fans over 17 games, an average of 13,253 per game, ranking the Rebels No. 23 nationally in attendance. Attendance increased to 266,460 in 2011-12, Dave Rice’s first year, with the average figure of 14,025 ranking UNLV 17th nationally.

Attendance spiked the following year, as an average of 15,196 fans came out to watch the Rebels make the NCAA tournament for the fourth consecutive season. UNLV was a lofty 14th in the country in average attendance that year, but diminishing results on the court led to an erosion in the stands — after three straight years of missing the NCAA tournament, UNLV drew just 11,542 per game in 2015-16, the lowest mark in eight years.

The prolonged slump has taken its toll on the Rebels’ drawing power. In addition to the paltry crowd for the Incarnate Word game, UNLV drew just 8,810 for a Nov. 26 game against Western Kentucky, and a Nov. 16 contest against UC Riverside managed only 8,711 fans.

Through nine home games in 2016-17, UNLV has drawn 89,631 fans, an average of 9,959 per game. If that number holds up through the rest of the season, it would represent the Rebels’ lowest attendance figure in more than 20 years (9,513 in 1995-96).

“The enthusiasm level is definitely not as high as it’s been in the past,” said Matt Peskin, a UNLV student who serves as president of The Rebellion, UNLV’s student cheering section. “The hype on campus isn’t there the way it has been in previous years. It’s definitely quieter this season, in a very noticeable way.”

The dip in ticket sales is having a tangible effect on the way the athletics department is being run. According to UNLV’s 2015-16 annual report, the department budgeted for $3.94 million in men’s basketball ticket revenue last year and came up nearly half a million short of that projection, bringing in $3.46 million.

“In the last three years, we’ve made reductions in expenses, travel, training,” Seibel said. “We’ve made reductions in staff. We’ve had freezing hires on vacant positions, and we’ve chosen not to fill some positions that were in our staffing plan. In some other cases, we filled positions that were open, but at a lower salary grade. We did that to respond to the decline in revenue.”

Maybe more concerning than the general decrease in individual ticket sales has been the decline in season tickets. Seibel said around 6,000 season-ticket packages have been sold for this season, but says that number is down from recent years. Because season tickets come attached with a priority seating fee — premium locations require a donation to the Rebel Athletic Fund as well as a major gift contribution — any losses are felt double. Last year, UNLV projected an additional $3.65 million in revenue from priority seating fees and brought in $3.42 million.

“We’ve seen a decline over the last few years in our season ticket base, and that’s something we need to reverse,” Seibel said. “We’ve had to be responsive to a decline in revenue as a result of the softening of season ticket sales over the last few years. We’ve had to make cuts or not invest in certain areas across our entire athletic department. That’s how important men’s basketball is to us, and within that, that’s how important season ticket sales are to us. It’s a critical part of our overall financial picture. When you have a decline in season ticket sales, absolutely we feel it.”

With ticket sales lagging and another key revenue source (priority seating) compromised, the pressure is on the basketball program to turn things around, start winning and bringing fans back.

After Wednesday’s loss at Colorado State, coach Marvin Menzies implored fans to come to the Rebels’ conference home opener on Saturday against Wyoming.

“We need our fans to come out and support these young guys as they go through this journey,” Menzies said. “It won’t always be roses. Sometimes you’ve got to weather the storm a little bit, but it will make those wins and the success, when we start to experience it, it will make it that much more rewarding.”

In the meantime, UNLV is bracing for the reality that a turnaround in ticket revenue may not happen overnight.

"We were very conservative with our projections going into this year," Seibel said. "We recognize that we are in a period of significant transition for the program, and there is always the possibility of an impact on your ticket sales when you go through the kind of transition that we've gone through. So our projections for this year were purposely conservative."

Seats for Saturday's game are still available as low as $15 on UNLV's official site, while secondary-market sites have tickets available for a little as $10.

Follow Mike on Twitter at Twitter.com/MikeGrimala

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