"Our fans need to step up."
Those were the words uttered by Nevada football head coach Brian Polian days before the Wolf Pack faced Fresno State at home on Nov. 23. Polian’s words had merit to it.
The matchup was crucial. For one, it was a de facto Mountain West Conference Championship play-in game with the winner all but assuring a spot in the title game against Boise State. Two, it was senior night, no less. Two of the campus’ most visible athletes — quarterback Cody Fajardo and mullet-wearing defensive end Brock Hekking — were playing their final games at Mackay Stadium.
In the lead up to the showdown, Fresno State’s athletic department urged its fan base to turn Reno “red” (their school colors). Polian countered with hopes of coating Mackay Stadium blue.
In the end, the game was neither blue nor red. Rather, it was grey, the color of empty bleachers. The fans didn’t step up, illustrated by the announced attendance of 21,446 — the third lowest home crowd of the season.
The turnout was the latest example of lukewarm fan support for the Wolf Pack. Here we examine why Nevada has struggled to draw fans.
Does the fault lie within the athletic department? The marketing of the program? The on-field success of Wolf Pack teams? The monopoly that is ESPN?
Nevada is fresh off a 2014 fiscal year where it posted a $39,450 budget shortfall, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal. The athletic department has operated in the black just once since 2009.
As long as attendance issues linger, budget problems will sure to follow.
Winning is everything?
The end-all, be-all cure to boosting attendance is winning, just ask Wolf Pack assistant athletic director of marketing and promotion Holly Aycock.
“Winning is everything. If you can win on the field, my entire job gets easier.”
“Winning is everything,” she said. “If you can win on the field, my entire job gets easier.”
A peak into Nevada men’s basketball season-ticket sales proves that. During the 2007-08 campaign — the season after the Wolf Pack qualified for its fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament — the athletic department sold a record-high 9,768 season tickets. Lawlor Events Center’s max capacity is 11,516. That’s 85 percent of the arena being filled by season tickets alone.
Fast-forward to 2014, Nevada hasn’t reached the Big Dance since and reported 4,103 in season-ticket sales for this season — a 58 percent plummet from its 2007 peak. Of course, the Wolf Pack went 15-17 a year ago, its second consecutive losing season.
However, winning hasn’t always translated into high attendance at Nevada.
Look no further than the Wolf Pack football team’s 2010 “dream” season, led by now-San Francisco 49ers’ signal caller Colin Kaepernick. Nevada posted a 13-1 record and finished the season ranked No. 11 in the Associated Press poll — both marks were program highs.
But just how much of Mackay Stadium’s 29,993-person capacity was filled that year? During the Wolf Pack’s seven home games, it averaged a measly attendance of 19,576 or 65 percent of the stadium’s capacity.
Need more evidence of Nevada’s Jekyll-and-Hyde fan support that season? An overflow crowd of 30,712 watched the Wolf Pack defeat No. 3 Boise State at home late in November. A week before that cult-classic game, an abysmal 10,906 fans turned out to see Nevada battle New Mexico State.
Sure, the caliber of opponent was a steep drop off, but a 20,000-person-worthy drop off? All the while, the Wolf Pack was the No. 19 team in the nation? It’s hard to explain.
If it’s not on-field performance, then what gives?
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Creating the fan experience
Ask the Nevada athletic department’s four-person marketing team what their purpose is and you’ll hear something along these lines:
“We make the magic happen — from when the fan buys the ticket, to the tailgate, to the music and beyond,” Aycock said. “We want fans, win or lose, to have a great experience and that’s what my job is.”
Whether it’s the football team running out of the tunnel engulfed in smoke with Kanye West’s “Power” blaring on the loudspeakers or the women’s basketball team’s annual Susan G. Koman Foundation night, the marketing team has their fingerprints on it.
Lately, the marketing team has focused on cause-driven promotions and the women’s basketball team and its head coach Jane Albright has been the motor.
Exhibit A: On Dec. 10, the team will host its annual “When I Grow Up” kids game against Cal State Stanislaus. During the 11 a.m. game, thousands of Washoe County School District students will take a field trip to Lawlor Events Center to watch the game.
“By history, women’s sports have always been in the background of men’s sports,” Albright said. “We need to connect with our fans one-on-one and really show we want to give back to the community.”
Aycock admits it’s harder to market women’s sports, especially with its niche audience that trends toward families and elderly people. But she falls short of saying the marketing team cares more about the moneymaking sports such as football and men’s basketball.
“We put as much effort into promoting women’s sports, if not more, than we do on men’s sports,” Aycock said.
However, marketing only makes up half of the game-day experience. The other is the facilities in which the games are played.
The arms race
Here’s a little known fact: the track that surrounds the gridiron at Mackay Stadium doesn’t meet the NCAA requirements to be able to host a meet. Due to the bleachers that hang above the two arcs of the track, the Wolf Pack women’s track and field team can’t compete in front of its home fans.
This dilemma has been a crutch for the program, according to Nevada runner Mariah Gramolini.
“Not being able to host a home meet is a huge burden,” she said. “We have to find other ways to get fans involved with us because we don’t have games where the fans can support us.”
That’s just one of the multitude of problems that face the Wolf Pack athletic department in terms of its facilities.
The others? Worn-out tennis courts for its men’s and women’s programs. An outdated Mackay Stadium, which hasn’t seen a major facelift since 1996. No indoor practice facility for its athletes once winter hits. No shooting range on campus for its rifle team. No diving platform for the swim team. The list goes on and on.
The good news is Nevada athletic director Doug Knuth has all the aforementioned issues on his radar. The bad news is the cash-strapped department (which has the smallest budget in its 11-team conference) can’t pay for everything anytime soon.
“I can’t prioritize the projects, I can’t put one of these off one month, or six months, or a year. I got to get them all done now.”
“I can’t prioritize the projects,” Knuth said. “I can’t put one of these off one month, or six months, or a year. I got to get them all done now.”
Knuth’s never-say-never mentality has already paved the way for one of the changes — an $11.5 million renovation of Mackay Stadium.
The Nevada Board of Regents approved the upgrade on Dec. 5, a move which Knuth calls a “game-changer.”
The facelift is slotted to trim Mackay Stadium’s capacity by 4,000 seats, however, will add club-level seating, more than 4,000 permanent chair-backs to seats, additional restrooms and make the entire stadium more handicap-friendly with rails and ramps.
The deadline for the renovation’s completion has been bookmarked for the start of the 2016 season.
The news shows Nevada’s athletic department is heading in the right direction, but it still has ways to go before catching up to its conference counterparts. The benchmark should be Boise State, which has completed more than $82 million in facility projects since 2006, according to the RGJ.
With that said, is the in-game experience diminishing?
All of the LightsTen of the Wolf Pack football team’s 12 games had a kickoff time of 7:30 p.m. or later this season.
Playing under the lights isn’t under the discretion of Nevada’s athletic department. Instead, the conference’s television partners — ESPN and CBS Sports — set the time.
Televised nighttime games are a double-edged sword. On one hand, the Wolf Pack receives six-figure bonuses for playing on ESPN and exposure that is second-to-none.
“We could not pay for all the advertising we get on TV,” Aycock said. “You want to be on TV. It helps the entire school, helps in recruiting and you can’t turn that down.”
On the other hand, those late start times, coupled with chilly weather in October, November and December, has possibly thwarted fan turnout at football games.
This season, the Wolf Pack’s November home games against San Diego State and Fresno State drew the least and third-least attendance of the year, respectively.
Late-night TV games raise the question for the Silver and Blue faithful: sit in the warmth of your home to watch the game or pay to sit outside and brave the cold?
The VerdictThe jury is still out on this one. There’s no way of pinning Nevada’s lukewarm fan base on one thing. There are too many variables — television deals, on-field success, budget shortcomings, marketing and even Northern Nevada’s culture.
Take a stroll around Reno and it becomes apparent, the Wolf Pack has a special place in the community. The abundance of Silver and Blue garb and merchandise is telling.
“Reno is a small-town community and I really believe they want us to succeed,” Aycock said.
Nonetheless, that support isn’t making its way into the stands. For an athletic program operating in the red and under achieving on the field, fans need to step up if the Wolf Pack's situation is to improve.