Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack future depends on winning now
August 30, 2018
Nevada Wolf Pack sports is turning into a cheesy remake of the movie Glengarry Glen Ross. There was men's basketball coach Eric Musselman at a football press conference on Monday urging fans to show up at Mackay Stadium for Friday night's football season opener. Musselman, who could sell a red sweater to Chris Ault, is a firm believer in the "always be closing" philosophy of peddling a program. He's the Pied Piper of Pack sports and fans have done exactly what he's told them to do since he came to town in 2015. That's why Musselman was selling Wolf Pack football on Monday and not football coach Jay Norvell. We're also guessing it's because Musselman drove an $80,000 BMW to the press conference and Norvell drove a Hyundai. Muss, after all, is the Pack's top salesman. Norvell is still going door to door and getting that door slammed in his face. Musselman sitting in front of reporters on Monday to open a football press conference was a symbolic way of saying to Norvell, "put that microphone down. Microphones are for closers only."
Last season's average crowd at Mackay Stadium was just 16,722, the lowest at Nevada since 2011 (15,776). Norvell couldn't even sell tickets to the UNLV game a year ago. The Battle for the Fremont Cannon drew just 17,359, the slimmest crowd for the in-state rivalry game at Mackay since 1989 (16,545). Brian Polian's Pack drew 29,551 (2015) and 32,521 (2013) for his two home UNLV games. Yes, Polian lost both those games on the field. But he won them both in the box office and, well, that's what really counts at Nevada. That's what Musselman's little stunt on Monday said the loudest. Football isn't doing its part to make everyone up on north Virginia Street rich. There will come a time in the not too distant future (like this April), when $1 million a year won't be enough to keep the Muss Bus parked at Lawlor Events Center. Jay, we know you can get your quarterback and wide receivers to play pitch and catch on the field. That's not enough. Now go sell some tickets.
Winning, of course, is always the key to Wolf Pack ticket sales. Yes, Musselman has a cute little smile, tights abs and a beautiful family but those things wouldn't matter if his team struggled on the court. Pack fans have always subscribed to the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately theory of buying tickets. That average football attendance of just 15,776 in 2011 was coming off the historic 2010 season when the Pack was ranked in the Top 25 and thrilled the nation with the Pistol formation. Certainly all of the good will and good cheer built up in 2010 would carry the crowd totals for at least a few years, right? It didn't last a few games. A ridiculous schedule in 2011 saw the Pack go 1-3 after four road games to start the season and the fans never showed up. The same thing happened a year ago. Norvell started 0-5 and the community tuned out the football program by Nevada Day.
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We could, however, witness a rebirth of Pack football this season at the gate. Nobody loves a winner more than Wolf Pack fans and, well, this football team could win big this year. Next week's game (Sept. 8) at Vanderbilt could jump start attendance this year. A Pack win at Vandy, against a SEC school (it doesn't matter it's a bad SEC school), will wake up the community. A Pack win the following week (Sept. 15) at home against Oregon State (a bad Pac-12 school), will energize the community. We could be looking at an average attendance (and a school record) of more than 25,000 a game this year. Boise State and Fresno State come to town in October and always bring their own fans. As one of Norvell's former bosses in Oakland once said, "Just win, baby."
Winning early in the season (the Vanderbilt, Oregon State games come to mind) will be the key to a boost in Wolf Pack football attendance. If the Pack waits to start winning, well, it might be too late to sufficiently stuff the Pack coffers to give to Musselman next spring. That's because this year the Wolf Pack will end its home football season on Nov. 10, the earliest a home schedule has ended since 1993 (Nov. 6). Just win, baby. Immediately.
The Wolf Pack is billing this year's home football schedule as the best in program history. Yes, it smacks of the "always be selling" Pack mindset once again but this is a bit different. There's a lot of truth to it. There are no boring games on this year's home schedule. Yes, Portland State is a truly awful football program right now, even by Division I-AA standards, but it's a good way for the Pack to wash away the stink of a 3-9 season a year ago. And then comes Oregon State, Fresno State, Boise State, San Diego State and Colorado State. This season will be the first that all home games are against a team with "State" in its name since 1958 when San Francisco State, Humboldt State and Sacramento State came to north Virginia Street. That alone makes it the best home schedule.
There's a Wolf Pack myth, however, that there was some magical time at Mackay Stadium when the stands were always full, the crowds were electric and buzzing and tickets were nowhere to be found. That has never happened on a consistent basis. Yes, there have been a night (or day) or two in certain seasons when that was the case. But those games have been the rare exception. The 2010 season is a perfect example. During that year the Pack drew 28,809 for California and 30,712 for Boise State. And those nights were indeed magical. But the other five home games that season averaged 15,502. And that was for the best team in school history. It's unfair to hold Norvell up to a standard that never really existed.
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