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McFeely: Bison opener a ways from sellout; could it portend smaller crowds this season?

NDSU's powerful football program might not be playing in front of a packed Fargodome this season and here's a few reasons why

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North Dakota State football fans celebrate after wide receiver Christian Watson (1) scored on a 75-yard touchdown reception against Montana State during the NCAA FCS semifinal at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019. David Samson / The Forum
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FARGO — We might be burying the lead here, since the real story of Saturday's college football game at the Fargodome might be whether it's wise to stuff more than 16,000 people into a building while North Dakota leaders are begging for people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 due to the rapid spread of the delta variant.

Super spreader, my eye. Maybe if we just pretend long enough that things are normal, eventually they will be. Apparently it's full steam ahead for a no-holds-barred North Dakota State home game, in part because a) the Bison athletic department wants/needs the money and b) we all are hoping so badly for things to be like they were in the Before Times.

Both, frankly, are legit reasons. We're all tired of this. Get vaccinated, you blockheads.

But the reason we are gathered here today is to discuss attendance for the 2021 Bison football season. How good will it be? We've become spoiled in these parts with NDSU drawing near-capacity crowds for most home games over the last decade — at least until the pandemic hit. Fans were severely limited for the spring 2021 FCS season in hopes of stopping the spread of the virus.

Now that crowd restrictions are gone, how will things go?

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My prediction is that it will be down from the pre-COVID years. There are several reasons for this, but one is the evidence on hand: It appears the Bison's home opener Saturday against Albany won't sell out.

An athletic department spokesman told me Wednesday afternoon that about 2,000 tickets remain for the Albany game, so a crowd larger than 18,000 in the 18,700-capacity dome is unlikely.

Empty blue seats were unusual for pre-COVID home games since NDSU started its FCS dynasty in 2011. In fact, a sub-18,000 home opener would be the first time since 2011 that happened (not counting the one game in fall 2020 and the spring 2021 opener). NDSU drew 17,023 to see a 42-6 drubbing of Lafayette that season.

The question is, would a non-sellout on opening day be a harbinger of things to come for the rest of the 2021 season?

My belief is yes. There might be several reasons.

— Fan complacency. The Bison have been so good for so long that fans are bored. Anecdotally, I hear from fans who believe there is little suspense in NDSU games, other than a couple of games a year, and so they'd rather stay home and watch on TV. That way, when NDSU takes a 35-7 halftime lead over a Western Illinois or South Dakota, they can just stop watching and go do something else. I know a local business owner whose company bought several season tickets to give away to clients. Up until a couple of years ago, the clients would be calling begging for tickets. Starting in 2018, the company couldn't give away the tickets. None of the clients were interested in going any more. Bored with winning? Crazy. There are 126 other FCS teams that wish they had that problem.

— Even some die-hard fans are going to stay home and watch in their man cave, tricked-out garage or shed, or at their lake cabins. The fall of 2020, when NDSU only played one game (with no fans), allowed fans to stay home on Saturdays and watch several games from the comfort of their home or rec area. One longtime die-hard fan I know who has had great seats at the dome for years said he's going to stay home in his garage and watch Bison games there. It's easier, it's cheaper, it's a three-hour commitment instead of a 12-hour commitment (including tailgating), and you can watch several games at once. College football attendance has been dropping across the board for years and this is one of the reasons why.

— Student attendance continues to decline. Again, a trend in college football generally is something that's hit NDSU, too. The athletic department has shrunk available seating for students a couple of times in the last decade because students weren't using all the seats. It was also a way for the department to generate more revenue. NDSU increased its available season ticket base this season to about 13,200, up from 12,500, because students didn't regularly use their allotment.

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North Dakota State fans celebrate during the NCAA FCS semifinal against Montatna State at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 21. David Samson / Forum News Service

— The home schedule is not favorable for attendance. The most attractive home game is the Oct. 9 against Northern Iowa, always a good rivalry game despite the Bison's dominance in the contest since 2015. Unfortunately for NDSU that game is also homecoming, which always draws a big crowd regardless of opponent. Rivalry games South Dakota State and North Dakota are both on the road. Besides UNI, home games are Albany, Valparaiso, Missouri State, Indiana State and South Dakota. If the Bison are as good as they appear to be, the only semi-competitive game on paper would appear to be Missouri State (if Bobby Petrino's team follows up on its improved spring season, which is not guaranteed).

— COVID. We're still in a pandemic and delta variant numbers are climbing rapidly in North Dakota and Cass County. Given rural America's and North Dakota's general dismissal of the seriousness of COVID, the latest wave might not keep large swaths of football fans away. But state officials and hospital administrators did make a plea to North Dakotans this week to get vaccinated and wear a mask because there is concern about overwhelming health systems. Health experts said the delta peak isn't likely to hit until late September. While it's still largely a pandemic of the unvaccinated, COVID concerns might keep enough people away from the dome to dent attendance.

To keep things in perspective, NDSU athletic director Matt Larsen earlier said the school has sold about 13,000 season tickets in a building that seats 18,700. Most FCS programs would kill to sell 13,000 season tickets. If the Bison average 16,000 per game, they'll likely still be in the top 10 of FCS attendance.

So some of this might seem like nitpicking. But a full dome has always been a great advantage to the Bison, especially in big games. It's also been important to their bottom line. NDSU needs all the athletic revenue it can get. If the Bison are down a couple of thousand fans per game and the erosion continues in future seasons, it could become an issue.

HOME OPENER ATTENDANCE SINCE NDSU MOVED TO DIVISION I

(Non-COVID years)

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  • 2004 — 18,665 (vs. Valparaiso)
  • 2005 — 13,793 (Arkansas-Monticello)
  • 2006 — 15,609 (Concordia-St. Paul)
  • 2007 — 18,823 (Stephen F. Austin)
  • 2008 — 18,701 (Austin Peay)
  • 2009 — 18,128 (Wagner)
  • 2010 — 17,340 (Morgan State)
  • 2011 — 17,023 (Lafayette)
  • 2012 — 18,769 (Robert Morris)
  • 2013 — 18,979 (Ferris State)
  • 2014 — 19,020 (Incarnate Word)
  • 2015 — 18,801 (Weber State)
  • 2016 — 18,881 (Charleston Southern)
  • 2017 — 18,502 (Mississippi Valley State)
  • 2018 — 18,483 (Cal Poly)
  • 2019 — 18,923 (North Dakota)

2019 FCS HOME ATTENDANCE LEADERS

(Per game average)

  • 1. Jackson St. — 33,762
  • 2. Montana — 22,545
  • 3. James Madison — 18,108
  • 4. Alabama St. — 17,799
  • 5. North Dakota St. — 17,440
  • 6. Montana St. — 17,281
  • 7. Southern U. — 16,957
  • 8. N.C. A&T — 16,927
  • 9. Jacksonville St. — 16,829
  • 10. Florida A&M — 16,537
Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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