LAS VEGAS — After all it has been through over the decades, they should rename the Las Vegas Bowl the “Endurance Bowl.”
Few bowl games have had to endure as much to survive over the decades as the annual college football bowl game off the Las Vegas Strip. A lack of funding, uninteresting matchups and low attendance in the formative years nearly doomed the game. The game would be played before Christmas, after Christmas and even on Christmas Day, trying to find that sweet spot on the calendar that worked.
But it managed to survive and with ESPN’s support along with the move to Allegiant Stadium and having Power 5 conferences playing in the game, the Las Vegas Bowl is a thriving entity and has cemented itself as part of the local sports scene every December, along with the National Finals Rodeo.
Saturday, the game’s 30th edition was played with its first participant from the Southeastern Conference — Florida — meeting Oregon State from the Pacific 12. And while the attendance fell short of expectations — just 29,750 — the game was switched from the afternoon to the morning to accommodate the Raiders game Sunday against New England which was flexed by the NFL from the night to the afternoon in order to change out the field. That probably impacted the size of the audience to a degree.
Those who showed up saw dominating performance by the Beavers. Led by quarterback Ben Gulbranson, who threw for 165 yards and a touchdown to take MVP honors along with a ferocious defense that limited Florida to just 219 yards overall, Oregon State (10-3) took the Rossi Ralenkotter Trophy back to Corvallis with a 30-3 win.
“To go from 2-10 to this, there’s no better feeling,” OSU linebacker Jack Colletto said of the program’s turnaround under coach Jonathan Smith.
Of course, the Gators were missing some key pieces, most notably starting quarterback Anthony Richardson, who opted out of the game. Jack Miller III, who started for the first time, had a tough go of it as the Oregon State defense pressured him constantly from the opening drive right up until the end. The Gators ended the season 6-7 and losers of their last three.
But the SEC will be back in town. The deal between the league and the Las Vegas Bowl runs through 2025 and according to John Saccenti, the game’s executive director, the event has never been on more solid footing.
“Moving to Allegiant Stadium was the game-changer,” said Saccenti, who has been in charge since 2014. “It allowed us to move up in the pecking order and get a deal done with the Big Ten and the SEC to go with our arrangement with the Pac-12. To have three Power 5 conferences in our game is huge.”
Saccenti, who as a young man in the 1990s filled the role of “Boom Boom,” the mascot of the Las Vegas Thunder minor league hockey team, has grown nicely into the position he currently enjoys. Thanks to he and his bowl committee which includes some of Las Vegas’ most influential sports figures, the game is more than just a three-hour infomercial for the city. It’s more than just a way to drive tourism during a dead week on the calendar. It’s a chance to expose the residents to a big-time college football environment and provide an opportunity to visit Allegiant Stadium.
“The community has taken ownership of the game,” Saccenti said. “Yes, the tourism element is really an important part of it. But it’s also important for the locals to support the event, which they have.”
The Las Vegas Bowl also has maintained various title sponsorships over the years. Currently, SRS Distribution, which is one of the nation’s largest building supply distributors, has its name on the game. Others in the past included airlines, car companies, electronics firms, video game companies and auto parts manufacturers and paint and body repair shops. And while the sponsors have changed over the decades, the game has stayed put. The only time there wasn’t a Las Vegas Bowl was in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m proud of where we’ve been able to take this game,” Saccenti said. “It’s the result of incredible support from ESPN. It’s the result of our staff and the passion they have.
“At the end of the day, getting into Allegiant Stadium was a huge boost for us. It enabled us to attract three Power 5 conferences, which we couldn’t have done if we had remained at Sam Boyd Stadium because we couldn’t have sold enough tickets.
“When you look at Allegiant Stadium and the events that come in there, the concerts that come in there, they’re coming in and they’re getting out of there. We’re the only event that’s based here, that lives here, outside of the Raiders and UNLV, that’s been here and is a city-wide legacy event. I’m really proud of where we are today.”
Saccenti said the moment things changed for good was when the 2005 game between Brigham Young and California sold out Sam Boyd Stadium.
“It changed the perception of the game,” he said. “People started buying tickets early. We had sellouts in nine of the next 10 games and there was a rule the NCAA had back then that said you had to show attendance of 25,000 over three years in order to stage the game. That Cal-BYU game took that rule out of play for us and we never looked back.”
Saccenti said the economic impact from Saturday’s game could be between $50 million and $60 million for Las Vegas.
“I remember when we had a $5 million (economic impact) and we were thrilled with that,” he said. “Then it was $10 million. Then $20 million. Then $30 million. We’re generating revenue for the city during a dead time of the year and that’s so big, especially considering where we fall in the calendar. The people who started this game — Manny Cortez, Rossi Ralenkotter, Rob Dondero (of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority) and (then-UNLV AD) Jim Weaver had the foresight to see that this would fill a hole in the calendar for the city and it has turned out to be ideal.”