Rebels football:

UNLV doing anything it can to get people to show up for home opener

Frustrated UNLV football fans drop season tickets — but will attend as subscribers to a seat-filling website

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Sam Morris

A fan cheers during the first half of UNLV’s home opener against Hawaii Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011.

UNLV Football Fans

A sparse crowd attends the UNLV vs. Wyoming football game Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012 at Sam Boyd Stadium. Launch slideshow »

Max Paonessa had enough.

A UNLV football season ticket holder through the 2011 season, Paonessa indulged himself in one more game last year, seemingly the most winnable contest on the schedule. When he walked out of Sam Boyd Stadium after UNLV’s 17-14 loss to Football Championship Subdivision member Northern Arizona last year, he and his wife, Sara, both 2002 UNLV graduates, said they were done for good this time.

Then came the email this week. Like a smoker swearing that was his last cigarette, they’re back for one more, courtesy of houseseats.com. The seat-filling site is one of at least two locally offering paid subscribers tickets to Saturday’s home opener against Arizona at 7:30 p.m. The game will be televised on CBS Sports Network.

Sara Paonessa got the email offering two tickets and grabbed them before even consulting her husband because she knew they would be interested in going when the only costs would be at the stadium. They grabbed two more free tickets as subscribers to fillaseat.com.

The sites both operate by offering subscribers — the average cost for two-ticket deals is $90 annually — a chance to reserve tickets to select events as they become available. Event lists are not available for non-members but Max Paonessa said he has used the service for Strip shows like The Lion King and Le Reve, both of which cost upwards of $100 to $150 from the box office.

Word of the deal quickly spread around to other teachers at Lois and Jerry Tarkanian Middle School, where both of them work.

“Now we have 12 tickets between (the group),” Max Paonessa said. “I guarantee it wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t free.”

Offering tickets through a seat-filling site is new territory for a UNLV athletics program desperate to do anything and everything it can to get people in the stadium for home football games.

“This is something they brought to us and we all agreed at the last minute, 'Let’s give it a try,'” interim athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy said. “I don’t think it’s something we’re planning on doing every game.”

Part of the NCAA’s requirement to maintain status as a Division I-A team is an attendance minimum of 15,000 either paid or actual attendance over a two-year rolling period. That means at the end of every season, programs can report the higher number between the total number of tickets sold or people through the turnstiles.

Last year, UNLV’s average listed attendance over its seven home games was 15,208. Games later in the year — lately meaning a winning season is no longer possible — tend to bring that down, too, making good attendance early in the year a high priority.

“We really felt that this game, when we decided to bring it back from Arizona, was going to be our marquee game,” Kunzer-Murphy said.

In May, then-athletic director Jim Livengood announced UNLV was in discussions to move the game to University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. The athletics department would have collected a payday “way north” of $750,000 for the move, according to Livengood, though that windfall would have been less after requisite ticket purchases and expenses like traveling to the game.

Still, it likely would have outweighed the revenue from a typical home game, which includes about $200,000 to $400,000 in ticket sales, according to Rhett Vertrees, UNLV’s associate vice president of financial services. That money goes to support the athletics department.

Concessions also pull in about $8 per person, according to facilities executive director Mike Newcomb, and 40-50 percent of that is revenue toward the $11 million budget of Sam Boyd Stadium, Cox Pavilion and the Thomas & Mack Center. The facilities’ revenue, including concessions and suite sales, is often used to help buoy the athletics department.

UNLV can also make $5,000-$6,000 on tailgate parking, which charges $20 this year to park in the designated area to the north of the stadium. That’s down from $40 in recent years. Parking in the main area is free.

“We’re covering the costs for the basics of running a football game," Vertrees said, "but not when you start considering scholarship costs and travel costs for the program itself."

The ideal situation is that football generates enough money to support several other programs, Kunzer-Murphy said, though very few college football programs achieve that goal. It's not close to happening at UNLV.

According to a USA Today report in July, only 23 of 228 Division I public schools “generated enough money on their own to cover expenses in 2012.” And many of those programs don’t compete in Division I football, where costs are higher than at lower divisions.

To work toward that goal, Kunzer-Murphy is trying to add a more “collegiate” feel to the games. Think more cheerleaders waving signs and fewer on-field promotions.

On Saturday there will be food trucks out in the tailgating area and for the kids bounce houses and some other interactive games. UNLV marketing department employees and student government reps have been walking around campus handing out student tickets, which are included in their student fees. And senior administrators will be at the entrances waiting to welcome fans into the game when the doors open.

But if this is UNLV’s marquee game, why give tickets away for free? Kunzer-Murphy said she doesn’t see it that way.

“We feel like they’re paying their way,” she said, referring to the subscription fee for seat-filling sites.

Although the first game will likely bring a decent crowd of Arizona fans and walk-up customers, some estimates pegged the pre-seat-filling attendance at 15,000. Part of this is due to competition from local high school football games, most of which kick off Saturday instead of Friday to observe the end of Rosh Hashanah.

The downside of using the seat-filling services is it risks cheapening the overall product and angering season ticket holders or others who paid full price.

The upside is that a fuller stadium looks better on TV and gets people like the Paonessas back in the stands, at least once.

“We want them to see it,” Kunzer-Murphy said, “and we want them to come back.”

Kunzer-Murphy said they plan to entice fans to keep coming back by focusing on the game-day experience. There are small touch-ups around the stadium, and it’s going to be dressed up for its 2013 debut. The department is focused on bringing back that collegiate, family-friendly atmosphere and hopes that will be enough, no matter the score.

“What happens on the field, happens on the field,” she said.

Max Paonessa estimated he and his wife attended 80 percent of all Rebel home games from their college days until 2011. As members of the Alumni Association, they would tailgate at that tent or, for six years, with a group of teachers who got together for one game per year.

That group fell apart because no matter which game they chose, the Rebels lost them all. It wasn’t any fun to pay money to watch a loser.

For free, UNLV gets one more chance from the Paonessas and other seat fillers. To come back and keep coming back after years of disappointment, it’s going to take more than a coat of paint and a smile.

“They have to win before I keep spending money on these games,” Max Paonessa said. “I can watch for free on TV and not be wrapped up emotionally and financially, then leave upset.”

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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