When Las Vegas’ 65,000-seat domed stadium opens in 2020, its primary purpose will be to serve as the home of a team who will be known as the Las Vegas Raiders. However, it will also have far-reaching effects on college football.
The most obvious, immediate impact will be for the UNLV Rebels, who will be co-tenants with the Raiders and who had seemed destined to remain at dusty, old Sam Boyd Stadium seven miles from campus into perpetuity before the NFL team started sizing up a move to the desert. While the 40,000-seat stadium was plenty big for the Rebels, it wasn’t an asset for the program as far as the game-day experience was concerned or helpful in recruiting. Plainly put, it’s a dump.
Now, they’ve essentially lucked into a $1.9 billion stadium, which will be both much closer to campus and an enviable recruiting tool -- one which UNLV coach Tony Sanchez has already started using.
“We were cautious about it in recruiting before it was a done deal. Now that it’s there, we’re going a million miles an hour,” Sanchez said. “The kids that we’re currently recruiting, they’re going to play two years in it, and if they redshirt, they’ll play three years there. They’ll be the first team to run out in it and experience it.”
Sanchez, who just finished his second season at UNLV, previously turned local high school Bishop Gorman into a national football power and isn’t concerned about competing with the Raiders for attention. Any drawbacks of no longer being the highest-level football team in town, he said, are significantly outweighed by the benefits the Raiders and the stadium will bring.
“I guess you got to trade it off. OK, you can stay where you’re at and play at Sam Boyd Stadium right now or you can fight to create that fan base and further it,” he said. “I think the opportunity is much greater than any negative. It’s playing in Sam Boyd or playing in a $1.9 billion stadium. The bottom line is if you have more success, people are going to come. I think it’s going to create more football fans, and it’s going to continue to grow.
“The stadium is going to be right on the edge of the strip, so you’re going to have sports fans who are in town, and now you’ve got a Saturday game. Hey, maybe now you go watch the Rebels play.”
Or, maybe, there is another college football offering, of which there are several possibilities.
Let’s start with what’s already there: the Las Vegas Bowl.
Currently, the bowl is No. 6 in the Pac-12’s pecking order, which means it selects a team from the conference after the Rose, Alamo, Holiday, Foster Farms and Sun all fill their slots and pair them with either BYU or a team from the Mountain West. The bowl, largely thanks to its location, has been widely viewed as a success, but with the new stadium, there is a strong case to be made that it deserves to be slotted higher so it features higher-caliber teams.
That’s what happened for the Foster Farms Bowl. It was at No. 6 in the pecking order when it was played at San Francisco’s AT&T Park but moved to No. 4 when it moved to Levi’s Stadium, the 49ers’ new home, in 2014.
“Possibly, sure. I don’t know what the plans are for all the folks above us,” said John Saccenti, the executive director of the Las Vegas Bowl. “We are still about six to 12 months away from diving into those contract extensions with the Pac-12. I know that certainly our stadium has everyone’s attention.”
The Pac-12’s current bowl contracts run for another three seasons, which means the Las Vegas Bowl could move up for the debut season of the new stadium. For this to happen, it would also likely require another Power 5 conference to be paired with the Pac-12 -- again, much like what happened with the Foster Farms Bowl, when it started pairing the Big Ten with the Pac-12 in 2014.
This all, of course, is still speculation as it’s much too early to have a good sense of how the quickly changing bowl world will look in 2020.
One thing that feels easier to predict, however, is a different postseason game: the Pac-12 championship. The game has been played at Levi’s Stadium the last three seasons and is under contract with the venue for one more. There isn’t expected to be an announcement about future sites until the completion of this year’s game, but the conference has been considering its options.
There are a few different ways it could go. The game could return to a home-hosting model, it could remain at Levi’s Stadium, find a new neutral-site venue like the new NFL stadium in Los Angeles (slated to open in 2019) or, eventually, go to Las Vegas.
With the success the conference's men’s basketball tournament has had since moving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in 2013, a similar move for the football championship game seems inevitable, and early discussions between the city and conference have already taken place.
“We’ve had dialogue with them about that,” said Rossi Ralenkotter, the president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “It’s an opportunity, and since we’ve had basketball there, and they’ve seen how successful that has been.”
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott was unavailable for comment, but before the Raiders’ move became official, he said the conference would “have to” and “want to” consider a move to Vegas for the football title game should a new facility become available based on feedback from fans about hosting the basketball tournament there.
Down the road even further is the possibility of hosting a College Football Playoff championship game, however NCAA president Mark Emmert said Thursday that Las Vegas will not be eligible to host a playoff game when the next round of bidding for the 2019-22 games takes place. The NCAA sports wagering policy prohibits a state that allows single-game sports betting from hosting NCAA championship events, however, it should be noted that the playoff operates separately from the NCAA and could allow an event in Las Vegas before other sports are allowed.
"We have not begun the process of considering cities to host the CFP national championship after 2020 in New Orleans," College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock said in a statement. "So it would not be appropriate to address the matter now."
For those in Las Vegas, the idea that the city is unfit to host a championship event seems silly.
“It seems a bit hypocritical when we have an NCAA institution here in Las Vegas who plays every one of their sports here, but we can’t host a college baseball regional or an NCAA tournament regional game, as well,” Saccenti said. “I think they’re going to take a long hard look at it. I think everybody’s eyes have been opened to the gambling factor with the NHL coming and the NFL coming.”
Added Ralenkotter: “We host four of the conference basketball tournaments each March, so we do have NCAA events happening here. Those are conference championship events that happen here each spring. Now that we have the additional opportunity with the [football] facility, we’ll look to see what outreach we need to do.”
Another opportunity for college football at the new stadium is in the form of nonconference games. BYU and Arizona are already on the books for a game that was expected to be played at Sam Boyd Stadium in 2021, and similar types of games now seem even more likely.