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Thousands fill downtown Fargo for 'GameDay'

From left, Desmond Howard, Chris Fowler, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit talk on the set Saturday during the broadcast of ESPN College GameDay.

FARGO -- Remember the rounds of boos that erupted Monday when ESPN announced "College GameDay" would be set downtown instead of by the FargoDome?

That vocal minority was drowned out repeatedly before and during Saturday morning's broadcast. The stars of the three-hour show may have been on stage, but the Bison Nation provided picture-perfect scenery with the landmark Fargo Theatre marquee serving as a centerpiece.

An estimated 4,500 followers threw on layers of green and yellow, and filled Broadway between Second and Fourth avenues. More fans cheered from windows, patios and rooftops flanking the street, with stages set in the intersection of Third Avenue and Broadway.

"It was the perfect backdrop to do a show," said "GameDay" producer Lee Fitting after the broadcast ended at 11 a.m. "I know there was some ignorant backlash earlier in the week -- people wanted us to do the show from the dome and the campus. Those people had no idea what they're talking about. You see the scene out here and how this looked on TV. There couldn't be a better postcard."

A postcard that came to life. The broadcast ended with television personality Lee Corso walking out of the Fargo Theatre wearing a bison head with a buffalo calf on a leash.

Fitting added that he told the show's host, Chris Fowler, that Saturday's show may have been one of the best settings in the show's 26-year history and easily the best of the current season.

"This is a combination of 'College GameDay' meets Wrigley Field meets champion league soccer intensity," Fitting said.

North Dakota State Athletic Director Gene Taylor agreed that downtown was the right choice and said he was getting texts all morning from friends around the country about how great the city and Bison fans looked on TV. The show has about 5 million viewers each hour.

"You talk about just a perfect scenario," Taylor said. "There was a little controversy earlier, but, boy, that faded away. I guarantee you people walk away thinking this is a phenomenal place to host it."

Early morning shadows kept the street cool, but the crowd kept warm, brimming with anticipation -- or coffee -- after waiting in long lines. Some fans waited overnight, starting at 8:30 p.m. Friday, to get into an area directly behind the sports stage.

Levi Otis was dressed for the weather and the occasion, wearing his late grandfather's buffalo fur coat.

"It's perfect," he said of its warmth, "but it weighs 25 pounds. I can totally feel it in my shoulders."

Throughout the crowd signs were lofted, with typical Fargoisms like, "Yeah, you betcha it's GameDay."

Others stacked the network's name in a message:


E veryone

S eems

P retty

N ice

The show's reporter, Samantha Ponder, was a favorite for sign makers who mocked her husband, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder. Some said the Bison's Brock Jensen was the better QB.

Messages were delivered digitally, with tweets like "I am way too short for this crowd" and "Favorite sign of the day: What state is Delaware State in?" posted above the stage.

Even Fowler got in on the game, tweeting: "This scene in downtown Fargo is crazy. Loud, rowdy for #NDSU and @CollegeGameDay. Really loud. Should be Fun. 9ET."

It was hard to find a Delaware State fan, but the Bisons' biggest rival made an appearance, even if they won't face off this year. The crowd booed as two Sioux flags unfurled from balconies at the 300 Broadway building. The other decks were packed with partying Bison fans.

At 7:45 a.m., an ESPN employee gave the audience instructions.

"Basically, what we want from you is lots of energy."

Bison Nation answered immediately and vocally, erupting in cheers and breaking into chants of "Let's go Bison."

The roar from the crowd echoed, bouncing between the brick buildings.

When the show started, the crowd was so loud it was hard to hear what the anchors were saying.

While loud, fears that the crowd would be wildly drunk and unruly were unfounded.

Lt. Joel Vettel of the Fargo Police Department said there were only a handful of alcohol-related violations and no problems with traffic or parking.

"Things went extremely well," Vettel said. "This was the best downtown event we've had in a long time."

Overhead shots televised on ESPN showed how dense the gathering was, but you didn't necessarily feel it until you tried to move around the stages on the sidewalks.

Alleys provided the fastest route. The wait was five minutes or longer to get into Dempsey's Irish Pub, which opened at 8 a.m., but the alley door provided immediate access and accessibility to a free breakfast taco buffet. Finding a place to sit was another matter.

Mike Cameron and his three friends got in the bar at 8:15 a.m. and said it was "phenomenal" he found a table. At 9 a.m., he didn't mind not being in the action on the street or even seeing it on the bar's TVs.

"I'll watch it when I get home," he said.

Those inside weren't in a hurry to get back out, where a walk four doors down to Boerth's Gallery took 20 minutes of shoulder-to-shoulder sidewalk shuffling.

Boerth's opened early, but owner Michael Rohr said only a few Fargo T-shirts sold. Still, he wasn't discouraged and thought the event was electrifying.

"The main thing for me is just to have fun with it," he said. "I hope this will continue to promote downtown."

Standing on Broadway in front of the door for Salon 3/5, located behind Atomic Coffee, owner Ryan Benz was wondering what the bridal party scheduled for their Saturday morning appointment would think of the commotion.

"She booked it two months ago, then on Tuesday morning I found out ('GameDay') was going to be here," he said, gesturing to the stage in front of him. He quickly told the bride they would bring her in through the alley entrance. "You don't dump the bride on her wedding day. But this is quite an event."

The south side of the stage was less packed and more family-friendly. Home Depot tents offered a sign-painting station and another where kids could drum on plastic buckets, while Coke Zero cheerleaders handed out samples of the soft drink.

Chris Garty carried his 16-month-old daughter, Grace, on his shoulders, watching the scene from an open space in the street.

"We were watching the game at home and thought we'd come down," he said, adding that Grace loved crowds.

Crowds kept coming as the sun continued to rise, with a number of dogs and their owners in the mix, including a 130-pound Newfoundland with "NDSU" shaved into its side.

"They don't need a dome. It's beautiful here," host Fowler said from the stage.

"This is fabulous," said U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. "What a great turnout. What a great show, not only for NDSU and Fargo, but for all of North Dakota."

"It's a legitimizing moment. We don't think we're becoming a major research university. We've arrived," NDSU President Dean Bresciani said.

A former vice president at Texas A&M , Bresciani said staging "College GameDay" downtown works better for NDSU than on campus, where A&M would have it and only students would attend.

"This is an all-campus, all-community, all-state event," Bresciani said. "If you look across the crowd, everyone is represented. This is something people will remember the rest of their lives."

He said "College GameDay" has an economic impact on the community, bringing in between $4 million and $8 million.

"It's not the money," he said. "It's the legitimizing of North Dakota State University. It's the legitimizing of Fargo and the state of North Dakota. This is a game-changer as far as the nation's perception of what we're about."

Fans were just as excited.

"This is cool. It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance," said Jim Dokken.

To quote Corso's oft-used line, "Not so fast, my friend."

After the broadcast, Fowler addressed the crowd.

"We've been to every hotbed you can think of. This has been unforgettable," he said, adding that he hoped to bring the show back.

He followed that up with a tweet that surely drew more cheers from fans:

"Huge thank you to Fargo and #NDSU for one of our favorite @CollegeGameDay ever! Bye-Zun fans are incredible. Love to do it again!"

"We'll make it a yearly stop if everything falls into place," Fitting said. "North Dakota State will not fall off our radar. Again, one of the all-time best spots."

Eric Peterson contributed to this story.