A tale of a game’s survival and growth

GamingToday.com is an independent sports news and information service. GamingToday.com has partnerships with some of the top legal and licensed sportsbook companies in the US. When you claim a bonus offer or promotion through a link on this site, Gaming Today may receive referral compensation from the sportsbook company. Although the relationships we have with sportsbook companies may influence the order in which we place companies on the site, all reviews, recommendations, and opinions are wholly our own. They are the recommendations from our authors and contributors who are avid sports fans themselves.

For more information, please read How We Rank Sportsbooks, Privacy Policy, or Contact Us with any concerns you may have.

Gaming Today is licensed and regulated to operate in AZ, CO, CT, IN, LA, MI, NJ, NY, PA, TN, and VA.

And they said it wouldn’t work.

Las Vegas is a city of skeptics, especially when it comes to college football. Of course, the fact UNLV has struggled in and away from Sam Boyd Stadium for the better part of three decades may be a contributing factor to the locals, who would just as soon sit at home, in a bar or a sports book and prefer to watch any Southeastern Conference game.

But that didn’t deter the folks at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. They don’t mind gambling, especially when it’s with someone else’s money. So back in 1992, the Las Vegas Bowl was launched.

The thinking was after the National Finals Rodeo vanned off from the Thomas & Mack Center and the cowboys had left their remaining bottles of beer on the tables (empty, of course), maybe there was something else to give people a reason to visit Las Vegas.

Truth be known, the Las Vegas Bowl was the old California Raisin Bowl, which had outlived its usefulness from the 1980s when it was played in Fresno and needed a new home. So picking up stakes and moving to the desert was a convenient option.

So Bowling Green and Nevada played in the first game. It was a hell of a game too, played in frigid temperatures and the Falcons held on for a 35-34 win. There were 15,476 who were there, including yours truly, sitting in the then not-so-plush press box.

That was when the Big West still played football. Wisely, it got out of the gridiron business and the game survived its early years.

Two years later, UNLV played in the game, beat Central Michigan 52-24 and gave their fan base some brief hope that things would get better. 

It didn’t work out that way. But the Rebels played in the Las Vegas Bowl again in 2000 and beat Arkansas, 31-14 with Hall of Fame coach John Robinson walking the sidelines. So UNLV is 2-0 in the Las Vegas Bowl. Maybe the Rebels should be invited back more often.

Unfortunately, 4-8 doesn’t get you into a bowl these days, even by the diminished standards set by the powers that be. Instead, Vegas gets Fresno State, which won the Mountain West title on Dec. 1 in the snow in Boise, against Arizona State, which turned things around under Herm Edwards, who never fails to remind us that you play to win the game, be it in wind, rain, sunshine or snow. 

There’ll be close to 40,000 people on hand to watch, a couple million more will be looking in live on TV and in sports books around the country (Boy, does that sound weird?), bets at the ready as the Bulldogs are four-point favorites.

The Pac-12 and the Mountain West have been involved in this game going on 18 years now. The game will be moving to a fancier location in 2020 in the Las Vegas Raiders’ new stadium off Russell Road. And it may have a fancier matchup as well. Remember, this is all about driving tourism. And if a Florida or a Texas were to play in the Las Vegas Bowl, there’d be a lot more hotel rooms filled. And you know ABC, which has televised the game for the last few years, would love to see higher-profile teams participate.

But Fresno State-ASU should be a fun game. The Bulldogs were last seen here at the Las Vegas Bowl in 2013. The Sun Devils were last here in 2011. Both teams will travel well.

And if you think it’s a mismatch because it’s Pac-12 vs. Mountain West, guess again. Commissioner Craig Thompson’s Mountain West has won the last two Vegas Bowls and in the 16 meetings between the conferences, the MW has a 9-7 edge. Thompson hasn’t had a lot to brag about during his tenure as commish. But his football teams have gotten it done in December at Sam Boyd.  

Like the city that bears its name, the Las Vegas Bowl has reinvented itself several times during its 26-year history. Back in 1996, it was touch-and-go as to whether the game would survive after just 10,118 showed up to see Nevada beat Ball State, 18-15. But ESPN came in and saved the event. Ten years later, a record 44,615 packed Sam Boyd to watch BYU bury Oregon, 38-8. And the game’s stock has been rising ever since.

Even the revolving door of title sponsors hasn’t held the Las Vegas Bowl back. By my count, there have been nine sponsors, from the defunct Reno Air to Mitsubishi, this year’s sponsor.

And as our city embraces pro sports with the NHL, the NFL’s arrival in two years, along with the possibility of the NBA and Major League Baseball putting teams here, it’s nice to know our humble college football bowl game has endured and is only going to get bigger and better as it gets ready to move to its new location off the Las Vegas Strip. Maybe by then, UNLV will have improved enough to play in the game and try to keep its undefeated record intact.

About the Author

Steve Carp

Steve Carp is a six-time Nevada Sportswriter of the Year. A 30-year veteran of the Las Vegas sports journalism scene, he covered the Vegas Golden Knights for the Las Vegas Review-Journal from 2015-2018.

Get connected with us on Social Media