As the Runnin’ Rebels men’s basketball team struggled to an 11-win season, game attendance plummeted to its lowest mark in a decade. Even the football program saw nearly 1,000 fewer fans per game last season. For new athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois, who took the reins June 1, the goal is to get UNLV supporters back in the building.
“I want people to know that our fans are appreciated,” Reed-Francois says. “They are a huge part of our success. We can’t do it by ourselves. It has to be a total community effort.”
The importance of Rebel fans was felt last season, as the athletic department faced a budget deficit of nearly $5 million. The decline in attendance was the major contributor to that deficit: UNLV needs its fans.
But fans need a reason to show up. Last year’s combined 15 wins between the basketball and football teams were the fewest of any Mountain West program, with Utah State struggling to the second lowest mark at 17. Eight of the other 10 Mountain West members had at least 20 combined wins in both sports.
“We need to create a reason for people to re-engage. It’s a relationship,” Reed-Francois adds. “We need to show people we care just as much as they care about the Runnin’ Rebels.”
There are a few reasons to return this season, and they come in the form of freshmen. Five-star, 6-foot-11 recruit Brandon McCoy changed the direction of UNLV basketball when he committed to play for coach Marvin Menzies. Redshirt freshman Armani Rogers has been named the starting quarterback by Tony Sanchez and could provide star power at the most prominent position.
While play will dictate fan interest, Reed-Francois wants to make each UNLV game a memorable experience regardless of the outcome.
“We all want to be a part of something special,” Reed-Francois says. “And if we can create that special game-day environment, it’s going to go hand in hand with putting on a really special event. So, I think it’s more than just wins and losses: It’s that total package. Do people feel valued? Are we putting on an entertaining, safe and cost-effective event? When we hit that sweet spot, people are going to connect with the Runnin’ Rebels.”
Valuing fans and giving them a reason to feel special is something Reed-Francois picked up from legendary coach Pat Summitt. While at University of Tennessee, Reed-Francois, who was the first female administrator to oversee a men’s basketball program in SEC history, crossed paths with Summitt. But it was one interaction following a meeting about facilities that hit home with Reed-Francois.
She went into the meeting overprepared but nervous, and left feeling like she didn’t really connect on her points. It was Summitt, the winningest coach in NCAA basketball history, who offered some advice.
“She said, ‘You are going to be so much more effective when you have an opportunity to show people that you care. That’s when you are really going to create buy-in,’” Reed-Francois says of the exchange. Now she is tasked with creating that buy-in for UNLV athletics.
It is a program that has struggled, despite having some of the best resources in the Mountain West. It is a program that has fallen backward when it should be reaching for a power conference. Instead, UNLV hasn’t won a conference title in football or basketball since 2008. The football team has continued to fall below mediocrity, as they haven’t posted back-to-back winning seasons since 1984. After reaching the NCAA Tournament six times in seven seasons, from 2007 to 2013, UNLV men’s basketball hasn’t been to the big dance the last four seasons.
“With Pat, it wasn’t just about telling people what to do,” Reed-Francois says. “It was about getting people to believe.”
With one of the best media markets in the conference and an athletic budget that surpasses most of its conference foes, UNLV has the potential to be the best in the Mountain West. It is up to Desiree Reed-Francois to instill that belief in the community.