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How BYU was able to build its brand in the gambling mecca of Las Vegas

The Cougars have a long history of success drawing fans to Vegas, both on the turf and on the hardwoods

Fans celebrate as Brigham Young University defeated the Oregon Ducks 38-8 in the 2006 Las Vegas Bowl in Las Vegas.
Fans celebrate as BYU defeated the Oregon Ducks 38-8 in the Las Vegas Bowl in Las Vegas on Dec. 21, 2006.
Tom Smart, Deseret News

History will be made Saturday in Las Vegas with the largest crowd to witness a college sporting event in the state of Nevada and it has nothing to do with a team from Nevada and everything to do with BYU.

The Cougars open their 2021 college football season against Arizona in the Vegas Kickoff Classic at Allegiant Stadium, where more than 57,000 tickets have already been purchased. Capacity at the new facility, home to the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders, is 65,000.

“I think it’s great! It’s funny and a little ironic, but Las Vegas has been really good for BYU athletics going back to the games with UNLV, the Las Vegas Bowl and the Mountain West and West Coast Conference basketball tournaments,” said BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe. “We are there quite a bit. Our people love to go to Vegas.”

The attendance record for a team sporting event in Nevada was set in 2006 when BYU and Oregon brought a crowd of 44,615 to the Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium. The record lasted until the sold-out CONCACAF Gold Cup Final filled Allegiant Stadium on Aug. 1 with 61,514.

A general view inside Allegiant Stadium prior to an NFL game between the Denver Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, in Las Vegas. BYU and Arizona will usher in their respective 2021 seasons Saturday at the new venue in Las Vegas.
Jeff Bottari, Associated Press

On the heels of last year’s 11-1 season, No. 11 national ranking and a pandemic that kept most fans away, Saturday’s showdown is on track to attract the largest gathering of BYU fans outside the state of Utah in program history.

“We really missed our fans and our fans missed us,” said Holmoe of playing in mostly empty stadiums last fall. “I don’t think we underestimated our fans, but we more greatly appreciate the role they play with our teams. Everywhere we go Cougar Nation is there.”

With Oklahoma and Texas leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, and the building chatter surrounding a possible BYU-to-the-Big 12 scenario, the opportunity for the Cougars to show their strength by filling a road venue, is timely.

“The brand is good. The brand of the Y. is good. It’s as strong as ever,” said Daren Libonati, president of Las Vegas-based Libonati Entertainment Group and former executive director of UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium and Thomas & Mack Center. “You don’t have to belong to the church or be a BYU graduate to love BYU’s brand of football.”

BYU in Las Vegas

The idea of BYU playing neutral-site games in Las Vegas was hatched more than a decade ago during a brief meeting between Holmoe and Pat Christenson at the Mountain West Conference basketball tournament.

“Pat knows Vegas,” Holmoe said. “I loved that meeting. It’s probably the genesis of what is going on this fall.”

Christenson is president of Las Vegas Events, an organization charged with creating business for Las Vegas. He has always believed that BYU football is good business.

“Almost everything they have done here has been a home run,” Christenson said. “When I had that conversation with Tom, we knew that no matter who they played or where that 75% of the house was going to get sold. Once the new stadium was announced I know (stadium officials) were chasing BYU and it didn’t matter the opponent.”

The Cougars lay claim to six of the eight highest attended Las Vegas Bowls — playing in front of no less than 40,000 in each of their six appearances — and the potential for a future BYU-Notre Dame game at Allegiant Stadium would assure another big draw. Holmoe said BYU is also looking at staging future neutral-site games at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, where the Los Angeles Rams call home.

Las Vegas, however, isn’t looking to share.

“I’m hoping to see them play a single game in Allegiant Stadium every year against a top-25, Power Five team,” said Christenson. “I am not surprised at all by these ticket sales.”

UNLV, which is scheduled to play BYU at Allegiant Stadium in 2024, will host Eastern Washington on Thursday, before the Cougars come to town. The Rebels’ largest home draw was 42,075 against Wisconsin in 2002, a number they expect to see BYU eclipse.

“BYU has shown its strength in numbers and in loyalty. They have represented themselves well for over 40 years,” said Libanoti. “With their strong fan base in California, Arizona and Nevada, there couldn’t be a better city than Las Vegas for them to gather.”

The Cougars made their southern Nevada debut in 1980 before a record crowd of 31,406. Jim McMahon rolled out a pre-Cirque du Soleil aerial show and routed UNLV 54-14.

“I was the event coordinator for UNLV athletics that night and I’ll never forget the long lines of traffic we had for BYU,” said Christenson. “They have huge drawing power.”

The Cougars are a perfect 8-0 against UNLV and 12-4 overall in Las Vegas, including six Las Vegas Bowls and two WAC Championship games.

“The Vegas Bowl helped BYU build a brand. It was a huge benefit to us,” said Holmoe. “We are grateful for the role that Las Vegas and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority played in those games. It helped us a great deal.”

Fanfest on Friday

The opportunity for a full house Saturday is not being taken lightly from those anchored in Provo.

“We are trying to bring as much ‘BYU’ as we can to Las Vegas,” said BYU marketing director David Almodova. “The fan base is hungry. Seeing the team take the field that night is going to bring an array of emotions. I can’t wait!”

To capitalize on the massive crowd, BYU will stage a Fanfest Friday night at Craig Ranch Regional Park in North Las Vegas. BYUtv, the BYU Store, BYU Dining and Concessions, the alumni chapters from Las Vegas and Phoenix, Cosmo and the cheerleaders will be on hand. The Cougar Marching Band will arrive on Saturday night. It will be the first time the band will perform at a season opener on the road in over 20 years.

“It’s Las Vegas! It’s showtime!” said Holmoe. “It’s not that everybody is going to participate in gaming and stuff, but we love going to Vegas for the shows, the food, and the heat.”

Not only will history be made by the size of the crowd on Sept. 4, but it will also mark the first time BYU will play football in Las Vegas indoors, with air conditioning, and with the heat of realignment soaring, the timing to keep cool and put on a show for potential conference suitors couldn’t be better.

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.