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October 23, 2017

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Every home date is like a festival for UNLV soccer team

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Christopher DeVargas

UNLV soccer fans enjoy a tailgate party before a match, Friday Sept. 15, 2017.

UNLV Soccer Tailgate

Beer is served during a UNLV men's soccer tailgate party, Friday Sept. 15, 2017. Launch slideshow »

UNLV MEN’S SOCCER REMAINING HOME GAMES

• Oct. 13: 7 p.m. vs. University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

• Oct. 15: 1 p.m. vs. Incarnate Word

• Oct. 27: 4:30 p.m. vs Utah Valley

• Oct. 29: 1 p.m. vs. Seattle

• Nov. 8-12: UNLV will host the WAC men’s soccer tournament Nov. 8-12

UNLV men’s soccer might be the best value ticket in town.

The Rebels have not only become one of the university’s best programs on the field — they won a Western Athletic Conference championship last season and have made the NCAA Tournament in two of the past three years — but their home games have turned into parties.

Festivities start two hours before the swelling fan base filters in to watch the team led by senior standout and Liberty High graduate Danny Musovski at Johann Field. The team and the UNLV Soccer Foundation have hosted tailgate celebrations before every home game for the past few years, and the practice has caught on. With food prepared by an accomplished chef, drinks and live entertainment, the tailgates have become a pregame gathering spot for hundreds of Rebel fans.

And it costs a scant $8, which includes a ticket to the game. Kids under 12 are admitted free.

“We think it’s the best deal out there,” said Jim Diguilio, a member of the UNLV Soccer Foundation board of directors.

The foundation, formed last summer, is composed mostly of local businessmen and former players who wanted to support the program. One of the first ideas they had, in an effort to build enthusiasm for the team, was to sponsor a regular tailgate event.

“A lot of the guys on the board have played at UNLV,” Diguilio said. “A lot of the guys have long-time connections to the program, so we felt that we would be able to come together to put some energy into the UNLV soccer program and hopefully make a difference.”

The results have been immediate, as home attendance has spiked since the tailgates began. According to figures provided by UNLV, the Rebels drew 947 people per game in 2016, the first season featuring pregame festivities. That’s about twice as many as games from 2013 to 2015. This season, the Rebels again are drawing more than 900 per contest.

The correlation seems obvious to UNLV coach Rich Ryerson.

“The tailgate just brings people out,” Ryerson said. “It’s bringing out students and people of all ages, and players that maybe have not been as involved in recent years.”

Before a Sept. 15 home game against Saint Francis, at least 500 fans came through the designated tailgate area adjacent to the Rebels’ home field. While UNLV players warmed up on the turf, a rock band blasted out hits from the ’90s, children ran around and adults helped themselves to food and beverages.

Barry Barto, who coached the men’s soccer team from 1982 to 2004, helps oversee the tailgates as part of his role as an associate AD for special projects. And he was having as good a time as anyone.

“This is awesome,” Barto said. “A lot of people spent a lot of time and energy putting this all together. In terms of awareness for the program, getting people involved, getting people and families out to see the games, it’s been wonderful.”

At the tailgate, a young father enjoyed a burger while watching his 3-year-old son kicking a ball with other boys.

He said he tries to attend every Rebels home game, in large part because of the pregame deal.

“It’s something fun to do with my son,” he said. “We both like soccer. I’ve been coming to games for a few years now. It’s a fun tailgate, and then we go to the game afterward.”

The food at the soccer tailgate is a cut above typical cookout fare. The grill is manned by Mark Sandoval, executive chef at the UNLV college of hospitality, and his students comprise his gameday staff.

The menu changes with each game, and fans are encouraged to come back for seconds (and thirds).

“This is a great opportunity for our students,” Sandoval said. “These are all students from the hotel college. It’s school spirit, it’s practical experience, it’s fun. I let them come up with the menus. They have a hand in ordering everything. Last weekend, we had almost 2,000 people through. It’s great experience for the students. And then we get to cook and watch the game.”

The UNLV Soccer Foundation plans for about 1,500 people to attend each tailgate. Diguilio and the rest of the board hope to continue expanding the deal until the program is a juggernaut.

“I think as we continue to evolve and grow and spread the word not only about the value, but the fun that can be had out here, our vision is to start to gain members of the foundation,” he said. “As we grow that foundation, we’d like to get a stadium built.”

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