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Not once did Tina Kunzer-Murphy consider turning down a bowl bid for UNLV. No matter who came calling, the Rebels athletic director was going to answer "yes" and then figure out the financial ramifications later.
The Heart of Dallas Bowl came calling last Sunday morning, and now the university is in the process of figuring out how to put this trip together without going too far into the red. Bowl games are traditionally difficult for universities to support without losing money, and this game presents a unique set of financial challenges for UNLV.
So is it possible that the ledger could tilt so far in one direction that the bowl game could hurt the university more than it helps?
"It could," Kunzer-Murphy said, "but I'm going to do everything I can to avoid that."
The Rebels (7-5) will snap a 13-year bowl drought on New Year's Day against North Texas (8-4) at Cotton Bowl Stadium. The game kicks off at 9 a.m. Las Vegas time and will air on ESPNU.
That station isn't available without a special package on some local providers, including Cox Communications, but Kunzer-Murphy is focusing on the positives.
"It's a national network and we're going to be the first game out," Kunzer-Murphy said. The game kicks off at the same time as the Gator Bowl featuring Nebraska versus Georgia on ESPN2. "It's going to be a three-hour advertisement for the university, and that's priceless."
The positive tangible effects of a bowl game include the experience for the current players, especially the senior class, and the extra practice time that allows younger guys to get extra reps and get a head start on the 2014 season. The benefits that are harder to put your finger on include the added brand awareness of making a bowl game and being seen by a national audience, which will include potential recruits.
"It's huge for a lot of reasons," UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said.
But while that experience may feel priceless, it does come with a cost. UNLV expects to receive $600,000 from the league for participating in the game and it's on the hook for approximately $400,000 in tickets -- 5,333 tickets at $75 apiece. Kunzer-Murphy said she's asking to have that ticket number dropped but it's unlikely to happen.
Each bowl pays the conference, which in turn divvies it out to the teams. That's where the $600,000 comes from.
The math works like this: If UNLV sold no tickets, it would have $200,000 -- $600,000 payout subtracting $400,000 spent on tickets -- to cover all of its bowl expenses. So every ticket sold adds to the Rebels' available funds for the trip.
UNLV is selling regular seats for $75 and student tickets for $20. There's one charter flight currently being put together and another could be added if there's significant interest.
As of Wednesday evening, Kunzer-Murphy said the university had sold a little less than 200 tickets but had approximately $22,000 in ticket revenue because some donors gave extra money.
The Rebels know they won't sell their entire ticket allotment, and may not even get close. They can't count on most players' families to snatch up tickets because every player gets four complimentary seats to the game. In preparation for losing money on tickets, the university is trying to tighten its belt on travel expenses.
That's where some of the unique circumstances come in, because some of that is unavoidable, like paying to house and feed the players while they're on campus after the fall semester ends Friday. While a few Mountain West teams will transition right from finals week into game week for their Dec. 21 bowls, UNLV has to provide for its players from the end of the semester until the time they head home for Christmas.
One way the Rebels will cut costs is to fly the players into Dallas on Dec. 28 from wherever they spend the holidays instead of everyone coming back to Las Vegas and then chartering a flight to Dallas. After the game, players will fly commercially again, Kunzer-Murphy said, which the university expects to be more cost effective.
In Dallas, the team is required to stay at a specific hotel with a rate established by the bowl. UNLV is still finalizing its budget and declined to share any of those figures with the Sun, but it does have choices in catering and shuttling in Texas. Multiple staff members are attempting to find the best values in those areas.
The extra days mean extra expenses for the Rebels, and they're also scrambling to get familiar with the bowl itself. The Mountain West has contracts with six postseason games, but this isn't one of them. ESPN Regional Television essentially traded UNLV from the Armed Forces Bowl to the Heart of Dallas Bowl for Middle Tennessee State, which couldn't play North Texas because both are Conference USA members.
The sudden switch to a non-MW bowl plus the Rebels' inexperience with the process is making things difficult to budget. Although Kunzer-Murphy was a bowl director for more than a decade, this is her first time in charge on the other side of the table.
"We're all rookies at this," she said.
Kunzer-Murphy said that last year, the Mountain West ended up giving some extra funds to Fresno State after it lost a significant amount of money traveling to the Hawaii Bowl. She will ask the league to support UNLV in a similar fashion, but that wouldn't happen until near the end of the school year.
As the days progress, UNLV will continue to hammer out the details and pinch every penny it can. Declining a game was never on the table.
"We're very grateful to have the opportunity to play in a game," Hauck said.
Now Kunzer-Murphy and the athletic department staff are working to ensure the Rebels still feel that grateful when the bill comes.