Photos courtesy of Las Vegas Bowl and the Las Vegas News Bureau
Six executives influential in the bowl’s backstory share their perspectives
THE EARLY YEARS
Rossi Ralenkotter: We were looking for special events from Thanksgiving weekend to Christmas Eve. That’s always been a slow period for Las Vegas.
Rob Dondero: Twenty-five years ago, the showrooms would shut, restaurants would shut. Everything went dark for a good portion of December. So the LVCVA and R&R sat down and looked at things that were happening [in other tourist destinations] during that time of the year, and we decided that a college bowl game would be very interesting.
Don Logan: Rossi told me about a chance for them to do a bowl game, and I told them I thought it made perfect sense. Las Vegas should be a bowl city.
Dondero: The next step was identifying how you actually go about getting a bowl game. After several calls to various conferences, athletic directors and ESPN, we found out there was a bowl game that was looking to move and change location.
Ralenkotter: Luckily for us, the California Raisin Bowl had decided not to continue in [Fresno].
Dondero: We literally reached out to them and said, “Would you be interested in moving to Las Vegas?” And they were very open to that. So then we had to go to Toledo, [Ohio], for the meeting to get the conferences and the NCAA on board.
Ralenkotter: It was Rob Dondero, [Las Vegas PR legend] Herb McDonald and myself at the meeting. It wasn’t a done deal. We knew we had to convince the NCAA that Las Vegas was a place for a bowl game. We sold all the attractions—the great hotels, international destination, all the amenities. We stressed the great experience the players would get. We told them about UNLV being part of the NCAA family, and Sam Boyd Stadium, and that Las Vegas was a college sports town.
Dondero: And they said yes. I was very surprised. Being an outsider to the bowl business, I pictured all 20 athletic directors from the conferences hashing it out and voting on it, but it went much smoother than anyone expected. An hour later we were good to go. It was really a matter of being in the right place at the right time. The game was going to move somewhere, and we showed up with a great pitch. Everyone thought it was a good idea.
Ralenkotter: We knew we had a great product to bring to the bowl series. We sold it, and they were convinced.
Don Logan: They went to the meeting, came back and said, “We got a bowl game.” It happened just like that.
Dondero: Now we had something that had never been here. We had to introduce a new event to the Las Vegas community, to the resort partners. We had to create an infrastructure that could produce the event.
Ralenkotter: A staff had to be hired to handle the game-day operations and all the things necessary to make the game happen.
Jennifer Logan: I was a student at UNLV at the time, but I also worked in the athletic department. It was an R&R, LVCVA and UNLV consortium that got together to produce the game.
Dondero: The first thing we had to learn was the best way to communicate to all the conferences and universities that this [was their] new home. We had to convince everyone that this was a legit place to play a game, from the alumni to the players to students to coaches. It was a little tough. It wasn’t a big time for the internet, so a lot had to be done through program ads and traditional media.
Ralenkotter: Then we had to reach out to the conferences to get promotion, marketing and advertising figured out. It was about getting word out that we had a bowl game.
John Saccenti: The big struggle back then wasn’t trying to figure out a way to get people to travel to Las Vegas, but how do we sell tickets? We couldn’t live and die on the teams. How do you sell locals on tickets when they don’t know who’s playing in the game until two weeks before? So we had to create an experience where it doesn’t matter who’s playing in the game.
Mark Wallington: It was a little mom-and-pop back then, but the game always offered a tremendous bowl week.
Jennifer Logan: For the inaugural game we created a pep rally on Fremont Street. This was prior to the canopy. The plan was to have the Flying Elvii land on Fremont Street during the pep rally and deliver the game ball, but it ended up being in the middle of a snowstorm.
Dondero: It was so cold and windy, one of the jumpers landed in the Cashman Center parking lot. One landed behind the Plaza hotel. A third guy literally missed Sassy Sally’s boot by about a foot. It was the craziest opening we could have had.
Jennifer Logan: It was definitely a Las Vegas touch.
Don Logan: When the teams would come to town, we did the same schticky stuff that every
other bowl game does. We would have a battle of the [marching] bands, but in the MAC and Big West days, sometimes the schools couldn’t even afford to send their bands here for the game. But the game itself has always been a strong foundation.
Ralenkotter: The first game, back in 1992, Bowling Green beat UNR. It was 35–34, really an exciting game.
Jennifer Logan: After the bowl season was over, the L.A. Times called it the most exciting bowl game of the year. That helped tremendously to create awareness. To get that recognition in the first year was really encouraging to us.
UNLV beating Central Michigan in 1994 was another important moment for the game, because it really drew the attention of the locals. Obviously, for this to work long term, we would have to draw locally as well as getting the teams’ fan bases out. So that was a big game for us.
Wallington: Air Force vs. Oregon in 1997 was the first really big game. It was the first time it wasn’t the MAC and Big West champs, and we got two high-profile teams.
Dondero: Our broadcast partner is ESPN, and we’ve always had a really good relationship. In the beginning, the LVCVA owned and operated the game, but in 2001 the LVCVA created a deal with ESPN for them to own and operate the game.
Jennifer Logan: When we did our tie-in with the PAC-10 in 2001, that just helped us so much. Geographically … getting into those markets, which are good for Las Vegas.
Dondero: The PAC-10 brought a footprint from Colorado and Wyoming all the way to the West Coast, which is our key market. So getting the PAC-10 and moving to ABC was a big moment for the game.
Wallington: The monumental change came in 2001, and that was USC coming here. USC has a national brand, and they had never played at UNLV, so for them to come to this state, which was so close geographically, with such a big fan base, it was great. And they were playing Utah. It was a big crowd. It was on ABC on Christmas, and it got the biggest rating in the bowl’s history.
Jennifer Logan: That 2001 game was our first [one] televised on ABC.
Saccenti: The first sellout in the history of the Las Vegas Bowl was December 21, 2005. We owe a lot to BYU and Cal, because we had two unbelievable programs that traveled really well and created excitement.
Dondero: I think the key moment was when BYU started coming, because BYU has such a loyal traveling fan base. The first time, they sold out the stadium.
Wallington: The “BYU era” is a big deal. That’s what elevated the game to its current level. That’s when the sellouts started. We had never had a sellout until 2005. And then we had five straight years [2006-2010] of BYU playing in the Las Vegas Bowl. The next year they were 11–2, they were ranked and there was a lot of demand. We sold 44,615 tickets, which is the all-time largest crowd for a team sporting event in state history. We had to put up temporary bleachers behind the end zone to accommodate the demand. At Sam Boyd you really can’t break that record.
Saccenti: All of a sudden, the perception completely changed. We started selling out the day we announced the teams. People didn’t want to get shut out. We were fortunate to go on a string with BYU, and I know some people will say it’s pretty easy to fill that stadium up when you have BYU, but we haven’t had BYU in a while, and I think we’ve gone on to create something pretty special.
Wallington: The biggest star moment of my career with the bowl is the year we got the Hoff to sing the anthem. It was 2008, and we found out David Hasselhoff’s daughter went to Arizona, which was playing in the Las Vegas Bowl that year. So we reached out to the Hoff. There was some skepticism about whether it would work, but the throng of media around him on the field—he didn’t just have the sports media there; all the paparazzi were at the game to get a shot of him singing—you would have thought it was Whitney Houston [out there]. It was great exposure for the game. It led off SportsCenter. I still have it on my DVR. Then he came into the press box with pre-autographed photos. [Laughing] He was just passing them out! He loved it and we loved him.
WALLINGTON After BYU, we kind of switched to the Boise State era. In 2010, Boise played Utah, and it was the first game that matched up two ranked teams. And it showed it didn’t have to be BYU, because the game sold out. Sellouts kind of became the norm for the Las Vegas Bowl. Last year, when we had the return of BYU to play Utah, their big rival, playing outside of the state of Utah for the first time, it was the hottest ticket in the history of the game. We could have sold 10,000 more tickets. We ended up selling 43,213. It was the eighth sellout in the last 11 years.
Saccenti: I think we’ve taken it to a new level. I want our people to ask, “What has nobody done at a game, and can we do that?” I can tell you that no other bowl game has built an entertainment stage in the heart of the stadium and had the Jabbawockeez, Rock of Ages and other Strip headliners. We’ve had world-class DJs playing [before and during]. The experience people get is different.
Back in 2010, we were trying to create a bigger, better fanfest. So we contracted a traveling carnival company, and we were going to have a full-blown carnival before the game—Ferris wheel, Tilt-A-Whirl, the whole deal. We were averaging 39,000 people, so the contract was we’d give them space to set up, and they’d get to keep the revenue from the carnival. Well, that day we had the hardest rainstorm. I think it rained for about seven straight hours, and every ride got flooded out. I was standing there watching the Ferris wheel, and every time the last car got to the top and turned over, gallons of water were just dumping out. It was a complete disaster. I don’t think one single person went to the carnival.
Dondero: One year, before Sam Boyd had a score board, we had a vendor who set up a giant video wall on the north side of the field between the locker room and the stadium. And it was the windiest day I think I’ve ever seen in Las Vegas. It must have been 60 miles per hour, and the video wall was just swaying back and forth. I thought it was going to fall and kill somebody!
Wallington: When Oregon played here, the team mascot was getting ready to go to an event, so he came down from the hotel with his suit and head on. He thought it would be funny to go through the casino. The Oregon duck was detained by casino security. That is only in Las Vegas.
Don Logan: One of the challenges of Sam Boyd Stadium is that you know the sewer is going to back up in the locker rooms. Anyone who’s been at a UNLV game with more than 20,000 people there, it’s just a given.
Dondero: Before one of the games, we had a sewer issue in the north end zone. It was one of the years BYU was playing, so traffic into the stadium was bumper-to-bumper. We had to get a police escort to get the plumber here in time.
Wallington: You’ve got to give credit to these guys who brought it here. There were disbelievers. Remember, that was before a lot of these events we have here now. It was before the raceway was even built. Las Vegas was more of a gaming town. It was before the culinary and the shopping, and before all the college basketball tournaments. It seems like a no-brainer now, but it wasn’t a sure thing. They guessed right, and they went out and got a bowl game to come here.
Don Logan: Nobody has done more to promote Las Vegas in the last 40 years than Rossi. In my mind, Rossi is the most important marketing entity that Las Vegas has ever had. He continues to understand and figure out new ways to fill those 150,000 rooms we have. And working hand-in-hand with Rob, the bowl has been the beneficiary of two guys who are good friends and who are tremendously successful working together.
Ralenkotter: We’re well established among the bowl landscape now. There are a lot more bowls now than when we started, but when you have that brand in Las Vegas, everyone wants to be involved. Because of Las Vegas, we have a competitive advantage over all the other cities that have a bowl game or might want a bowl game.
Dondero: We are now the 16th-oldest bowl game on the roster. I remember when we started and people didn’t really take us seriously. They said, “Eh, you’ll be in for two years and then it’s going to die.” But we made sure it survived and grew.
Don Logan: Now you look at the longevity of it, and I think with the new stadium that’s being discussed right now, it could change the dynamics of the game for the better. I could envision a future where Las Vegas has two bowl games, or maybe because of the new stadium we get into the bowl playoffs. Look at the way college basketball has embraced Las Vegas—Duke is coming here, BYU is essentially hosting a tournament here, the PAC-12, Mountain West and West Coast Conferences all have their postseason tournaments here. I think the Las Vegas Bowl is really well positioned to get bigger and better.
Dondero: Word has gotten out to athletes and coaches that this is probably the most fun game you can go to. One thing that’s held back growth is the size of the stadium—we can’t make some financial business decisions without additional ticket sales. But with a new venue possibly being built, that would change the entire dynamic of the game, where we could go from being in Tier 3 to maybe somewhere in the top tier of bowl games.
I think we’re in [a] very good position because we have such a proven track record with the people who really matter. No one has left this game having a bad time.