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Murray: It's time to move the Nevada and UNLV football game to a new date

Devonte Lee
Devonte Lee rushes for a touchdown during Nevada's loss to UNLV on Saturday. (Jenna Holland/Nevada Sports Net)

The last time Nevada and UNLV football faced off in Las Vegas (2018), the game drew its lowest attendance since 1983.

The last time Nevada and UNLV football faced off in Reno (last Saturday), the game drew its lowest attendance since 1989 (and that 1989 game was a sellout before Mackay Stadium's expansion).

So something is afoot. The rivalry game that used to draw sellouts (or at least near sellouts) every time it was played at Mackay Stadium doesn't do so anymore.

The first 12 games played between these teams at Mackay Stadium following its expansion to 30,000-plus capacity in 1992, the Wolf Pack drew 27,307 fans a game. The last two have averaged 17,021, bottoming out at 16,683 for Saturday's overtime loss. You only must go back to 2015 to see a huge crowd in Reno for Nevada-UNLV. That game drew 29,557 fans. The contest two years prior (2013) drew 32,521, the second-largest crowd in Mackay Stadium's history.

So why the fall?

Well, look at the dates of those 2013 and 2015 games. Both games were played in October. And when have the last two home games against UNLV been played? The last weekend of November. Neither has drawn well.

This isn't some scheduling quirk. The Mountain West allows each of its schools to request one conference game to be played on a specific date. Nevada and UNLV have selected the last game of the regular season for the Battle for the Fremont Cannon, which is traditionally rivalry week. The decrease in attendance – in 2018, UNLV drew less than 20,000 for the game for the first time in 35 years – might not completely be a result of the later date, which debuted in 2016. But it's at least worth taking a look to see if it is.

Some have suggested playing the game on Nevada Day Weekend, which would move the contest up a month to the last week of October. I'd suggest playing the game even earlier might be wiser. Among Nevada's top-25 attendance marks ever, eight have come against UNLV. All eight of those games were played in September or October. Six of them were played Oct. 8 or earlier.

That was a result of the Nevada-UNLV game being an early-season non-conference game until the Wolf Pack joined the Rebels in the MW in 2012. By requesting the the game be played in late November, both schools figured more could be on the line if the game was played later (A bowl berth? The West Division title? Maybe job security?), which would drum up interest and the overall stakes. But the attendance marks have told a different story, albeit with a short sample size to draw conclusions from.

Former Nevada coach football coach Brian Polian didn't like playing UNLV early in the season, in part because a loss would neuter attendance for the remainder of the season. But what if you win the game? It could pump up crowds for the rest of the year. It could get your community motivated again. And by playing earlier in the season, especially for games in Northern Nevada, the chances of warmer weather would increase.

The Wolf Pack can't afford to draw 16,000 or 17,000 fans for a home game against its top rival. Those crowds have to push capacity to help flush the athletic department with some much-needed revenue.

There's no way to fully know how much a date change would help attendance. Nevada's football crowds are down across the board the last couple of seasons. The Wolf Pack has broken the 20,000-fan mark just three times in the last three seasons, eking above the line for games against Boise State (21,431), Oregon State (20,462) and Purdue (20,144), thanks in large part to the visiting teams bringing fans. Nevada exceeded the 20,000-fan mark 12 times in the three years prior to that. Perhaps the Wolf Pack is never getting those big crowds to come back.

Will an earlier date pump Nevada-UNLV attendance marks back to the 27,000-plus range the Wolf Pack drew for home games against the Rebels from 1992-2015? Probably not. But it should help, and both teams should lobby for a new date to find out.

Nevada-UNLV attendances

2019: 16,683 (Reno)

2018: 19,921 (Las Vegas)

2017: 17,359 (Reno)

2016: 23,569 (Las Vegas)

2015: 29,557 (Reno)

2014: 20,151 (Las Vegas)

2013: 32,521 (Reno)

2012: 20,565 (Las Vegas)

2011: 25,978 (Reno)

2010: 28,958 (Las Vegas)

2009: 24,078 (Reno)

2008: 33,078 (Las Vegas)

2007: 25,278 (Reno)

2006: 37,179 (Las Vegas)

2005: 23,457 (Reno)

2004: 27,596 (Las Vegas)

2003: 31,900 (Reno)

2002: 28,341 (Las Vegas)

2001: 24,238 (Reno)

2000: 27,578 (Las Vegas)

1999: 23,490 (Reno)

1998: 22,006 (Las Vegas)

1997: 30,118 (Reno)

1996: 20,230 (Las Vegas)

1995: 33,391 (Reno)

1994: 21,296 (Las Vegas)

1993: 26,866 (Reno)

1992: 25,409 (Las Vegas)

1991: 24,123 (Reno)

1990: 24,402 (Las Vegas)

1989: 16,545 (Reno)

1987: 25,584 (Las Vegas)

1985: 13,417 (Reno)

1983: 16,168 (Las Vegas)

1979: 12,751 (Reno)

1978: 20,910 (Las Vegas)

1977: Don't have attendance number

1976: 14,270 (Las Vegas)

1975: 5,800 (Reno)

1969-74: Don't have attendance number

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