Spin alley — the media center in Cox Pavilion — wasn’t exactly a bastion of sweeping backdrops and wide-open work spaces for television crews on debate night. There were some 5,000 journalists on campus and quarters were, understandably, tight.
Nonetheless, intrepid reporters soldiered on — sometimes a little too enthusiastically. CNBC was broadcasting a tete-a-tete between Hillary Clinton surrogate Mark Cuban and one of its reporters live from the media center when they found themselves with an uninvited guest.
As Media Relations Specialist Francis McCabe tells it, a man off to the side was listening in. “It was two people, obviously live on TV, pointing at each other arguing over what was just said at the debate… the guy on the side just walks right into the shot and says ‘How can you say that?’ The woman Mark Cuban was arguing with was like, ‘We're live on TV.’ I think he was a reporter trying to listen to Mark Cuban and didn’t realize they were broadcasting.”
Rookie move — even the activists with signs stalking the MSNBC and CNN stages on campus knew that whichever camera had a red light lit up was broadcasting.
The media relations team — McCabe and fellow Media Relations Specialist Keyonna Summers, Director of Media Relations Tony Allen, and Administrative Assistant Alcinia Whiters — were on the ground to serve as liaisons between the university and the horde of journalist that descended on it during the week of the debate.
They started planning more than a year ago for the event, with a big assist from Hofstra and Washington University — the two other institutions that hosted debates this year. It was Washington’s second time after holding the vice presidential debate in 2008, and Hofstra’s third, having previously hosted in 2012 and 2008.
“We took some of the things that worked for them and we Vegased them,” Allen said. “‘Instead of a few faculty in the media center after the debate, we were in there most of the day Tuesday and from dawn past dusk on Wednesday with as many as seven faculty. We also did five pop-up media availabilities on campus to get even more faculty involved, and they were all tremendously successful.”
The debate offered unprecedented opportunity to showcase UNLV and its experts, Allen said. “We didn't want to show up the next day and say it would've been nice if we'd done this or we should’ve done that.”
Flexibility was key, like when “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” decided two days before the debate to shoot a segment from the school starring the breakout personality of the second debate, Ken Bone. The team had to help scout out a location and connect producers with cheerleaders who wanted to go appear in the segment.
It was indicative of the kind of teamwork everyone relied on during the weeks leading up to the debate, from facilities and parking to student affairs, police services, and the campus events teams. Communicators in the colleges pitched in to man the popup booths and media information tables.
“Our goal from the start was to showcase our great university and its amazing people, deliver the hospitality Las Vegas is known for, and in the process put on the best debate of the season,” Allen said. “I truly believe we accomplished this — together — and it took all of us at UNLV working together to make it a success.”
The last-minute requests rolled in — like pundits jumping on a candidate’s latest gaffe — quickly, and with mounting frequency. One outlet wanted to bring in personalities without credentials to the media center on debate night; the team had to firmly explain that couldn’t happen.
One of the more frustrating moments was when the team discovered that Tarkanian Way, which was expected to be a main conduit for getting media and experts into the Cox Pavilion, was closed at the eleventh hour on debate day. Fortunately, everyone from the team got to campus at 3 a.m. that day to do walkthroughs and were able to plan around it, adjusting times for expert interviews with outlets like C-SPAN on the fly and eventually finding a way to easily get credentialed experts in and out.
They had started working from the debate’s media center the week before as journalists arrived and took shifts over the weekend. Their first real break didn’t come until the debate itself was actually under way.
“It was the first time we could stop,” Summers said. “It was cool because the professors went down to grab a bite to eat. They were all together, bonding, watching it together. Just to watch their faces was a great experience.”
All told, the team helped facilitate upward of 300 interviews, including at media pop-up events that saw dozens of journalists at a time gather to interview UNLV experts. On a normal Wednesday, UNLV garners about 100 mentions in domestic broadcast media. The day of the debate, there were more than 6,000 – many featuring the university as the backdrop and more than a few with insight from UNLV’s faculty.
UNLV’s nationally ranked debate team coach, Jacob Thompson, appeared on CNN, MSNBC, and more. The networks’ campus stages also hosted UNLV President Len Jessup (MSNBC) and political science professor Dan Lee (CNN). CBS News interviewed the International Gaming Institute's Bo Bernhard and ABC News corralled Brookings Mountain West's Robert Lang for a helicopter tour of Southern Nevada to discuss demographic shifts. Every major national network, many regional affiliates, and dozens of top international media turned to UNLV faculty to understand the debate and its context in the election.
Should UNLV host a debate again in 2020 or beyond, the lessons of 2016 will prove invaluable. It’s something the team saw out of Hofstra, how that school knew what to expect and how to prepare.
Then again, that was a private school that could close its campus. It didn’t have activists walking around in polar bear suits or giant Donald Trump heads and carrying banners big enough to blot out the sun. That was unique to the Las Vegas experience.
“That shows with what we heard in the media, folks we talked to that night or afterwards saying ‘We covered all three of (the presidential debates) and you guys did it right in Las Vegas,’” Allen said. “That’s what we do. That’s Las Vegas. Having that partnership with the LVCVA — between the two of us we know how to put on a good show.”