Maybe it was when Derek Carr touched toe to turf on Monday Night Football or when Marc-Andre Fleury's skates carved a frozen groove at T-Mobile Arena. Maybe it was when Greg Anthony cut down the nets on an April night in Denver. Or all the way back to when Archie Moore, the "Old Mongoose," battered Nino Valdes for 15 rounds at Cashman Field; or when the original Las Vegas Wranglers suited up a team of Boston Braves prospects at the corner of Las Vegas and Bonanza.
Maybe you can pinpoint the moment Las Vegas became a bona fide, dyed-in-the-wool, pinky-swear-it's-true, capital-ess-and-tee Sports Town. But we can't. What we can tell you is that, without a doubt, Las Vegas most definitely is one now.
And with its new Sports Research and Innovation Initiative, UNLV aims to be a clutch player by drawing upon experts from nearly every corner of campus.
Stepping onto the field
A year ago, education professor Nancy Lough and kinesiology professor John Mercer sent out a survey under the auspices of the Office of Research and Economic Development to gauge what sports-related research was happening at UNLV, building on a similar survey that office conducted three years prior.
What they received in return were nearly 160 responses, including 70 research projects by tenure-track faculty, touching on everything from performance psychology to neuroscience to history, media, wagering, legal regulation, and beyond.
Together with Director of Business Development Jay Vickers, Lough and Mercer created the initiative to centralize the university's work around sports and foster interdisciplinary relationships and research. It's a resource that focuses UNLV resources to have a greater economic impact in the sector.
"Sports is big business and from an academic institution, the importance of that is that we're able to train our students to work in this industry," Mercer said. "One of the phrases that we started using early on is ‘Yes, Las Vegas is known as the entertainment capital of the world, but why not be the sports and entertainment capital of the world?’ This initiative is ultimately providing a workforce and training our students to be able to gain employment in a wide variety of areas within the sports industry."
Touchdown on the opening drive
Like the Golden Knights’ Shea Theodore notching the game-winning goal three minutes into the team’s first-ever postseason, the initiative's first tally was decisive and impactful.
Lough's research centers on diversity and inclusion in sports. While she says that senior leadership among sports organizations is becoming more diverse, there's still room for massive improvement. And that improvement can only make graduates from a diverse school like UNLV more marketable.
Toward that end, Lough is working with the Raiders to create the Al Davis-Eddie Robinson Leadership Academy, aimed at creating a pipeline for minority coaching and general manager candidates in the NFL.
"It's one of the biggest opportunities I think we've had since I've been at UNLV," Lough said. "We're trying to transform an industry that has been in need of diversity at every single level for decades. To partner with an NFL team is unprecedented; it's a game-changer for UNLV to be a part of it."
The idea for the academy came about when Raiders owner Mark Davis reached out to then-UNLV President Marta Meana in July. Davis wanted to build on a crucial aspect of the Raider legacy — being the organization that hired the first black head coach, Art Shell, in the modern NFL. He needed UNLV’s help to bring it to life
Lough is developing the curriculum for the academy, which is targeting a summer launch. It will prepare candidates to become NFL head coaches, then general managers, and finally team presidents.
Courses developed along with UNLV academics will include everything from game management and team cohesion to conflict resolution and crisis management. After their online coursework, attendees will come to Las Vegas to be mentored by coaches already in the league.
The academy might be the first high-profile partnership between UNLV’s initiative and a major sports entity in Las Vegas, but the goal is to develop these relationships among all of the city's high-profile leagues and teams.
"I've had conversations with the Raiders, the Golden Knights, the Lights, the Aces, UFC, the PGA, and NASCAR to talk about how we can begin working together," Vickers, the business development director, said. "When I go into a conversation I'm not telling them, ‘This is what we can do for you.’ I'm asking, ‘What are your issues? What are the opportunity gaps that you need us and our talented faculty, staff, and students looking at to help you be more successful?’ That's where they have an interest."
Playing on new fields
The academic scope of the initiative is wide, and with the ability to create new connections among researchers, the hope is that it will bloom into a vast array of research, synthesizing ideas already present at UNLV as its experts explore new paths related to sports.
Jennifer Pharr, a professor of environmental and occupational health, has been studying the ways in which playing sports are better for individual health compared to other recreational activities like going to the gym. She started delving into the subject in 2014 and has published multiple papers on it.
"[The initiative] is a great way for people who are doing research in this area to get to know each other and to come together,” she said. “There may be a good chance for me to work with someone like [ professor of brain health] Jeff Kinney, who's looking at sport and health as well. But without the initiative, I wouldn't have known who he was or what he was doing, even though we all work on the same campus."
Already, researchers working with the initiative have secured more than $400,000 in grants. It's a figure that should see dramatic growth as the program settles into place.
Psychology professor Brad Donohue pioneered The Optimum Performance Program, which has a long history of helping college athletes improve on-field performance through improving mental health. He's now at the start of the grant-writing process to bring his program to participants in youth sports and local police athletic leagues — a project he anticipates will become a four- or five-year clinical trial.
UNLV, he said, could foster the connections between the city’s amateur sports and professional teams.
"Las Vegas is going to be a hub for sports in the country," Donohue said. "If you look at all the sports hubs around the country, you'll see a university interacting with that sport hub. It's critical to the development of sports, even if you look at the little leagues. [Pro teams are] going to want to invest in the youth and programs to help kids out. They're likely to seek out the university for partnerships along those lines."
The initiative is in the process of applying to become an institute, making it a more permanent and formal part of the campus. To get there, the initiative will have to show three to five years' worth of funding, which it will seek through a mixture of grants, sponsorships, and philanthropy. Its directors will be pursuing donations to allow it to build a permanent facility at UNLV’s Harry Reid Research and Technology Park.
At the same time, Lough is spearheading a new degree in intercollegiate or professional sports management to position UNLV graduates for highly competitive careers in the sports world, creating a homegrown workforce for a new, diverse piece of the Southern Nevada economy.
"The vision is for students to understand the marketing, the finance, and the economics and the business side — but at the same time, we want to build an understanding of athletes and biometrics and key aspects around performance that are part of the data piece," Lough said. "We can have data analytics around business performance, but we can also have it around athlete performance. The convergence of those two is really where the state of the industry is going."
It's a state of the industry that can be well-served by UNLV, developing future leaders in league headquarters and front offices, backed by researchers at their alma mater finding new ways to innovate across all sports that find a home in Southern Nevada.
Blow the whistle; UNLV is ready to play.