Nineteen years ago this month, the first Las Vegas Bowl was the most exciting game of the bowl season. After trailing by 25 points at halftime, the University of Nevada, Reno rallied to take a 34-28 lead in the fourth quarter before Bowling Green scored with 22 seconds left to win, 35-34. Unfortunately, there were only 11,189 fans at Sam Boyd Stadium to share the excitement. Then as now, it was hard for small-conference teams to attract much attention—and in 1992, the Las Vegas Bowl meant a contest between the champions of the Big West and the Mid-American conferences.
In the past decade, though, the game—now dubbed the Maaco Bowl Las Vegas—has grown significantly, with six straight sellouts, including a state-record crowd of 44,615 for the 2006 matchup between BYU and Oregon. That’s in large part a tribute to the game’s more recent affiliations with the Pac-12 and a surging Mountain West Conference. A television deal with ESPN, with all the chatter that implies, hasn’t hurt, either.
That momentum could be coming to an end when the contract runs out following the 2013 game. The Mountain West, which has already lost perennial football powers BYU and Utah, will lose TCU to the Big 12 next year and Boise State and San Diego State to the Big East in 2013. That would leave the MWC with eight football schools—charter members UNLV, Air Force, Colorado State, New Mexico and Air Force; and new additions Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii. None of these teams are within a Hail Mary of the Top 25. And a planned merger with Conference USA wouldn’t add any marquee teams.
This year’s Maaco Bowl pairing of No. 7 Boise State (11-1) and Arizona State (6-6) on Dec. 22 doesn’t have the star power of last season’s matchup between Boise State and Utah, both of which spent part of 2010 ranked in the Top 10, but it should produce another sellout.
Then the hard part begins for the bowl’s organizers, as they try to keep the game from falling back into the obscurity from which it rose.