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Kevin Schnepf, Published December 20 2013

Schnepf: Bison make their presence known on way to Frisco

Fargo - For a moment, ever so brief, another trip to Texas for North Dakota State football fans was in question.

After watching their unbeaten Bison turn the ball over twice and fall behind 7-0 during the first two minutes of Friday night’s Football Championship Subdivison semifinal game against New Hampshire, all was fine with Bison Nation after watching their team produce the most points in NDSU playoff history with a dominating 52-14 win.

That noise blowing off the Fargodome roof could be heard all the way to Frisco, where the Bison will try to win a third straight national title.

The deafening roar of approval may have been the fans’ way of saying thank you for not screwing up their holiday travel plans. But it was perhaps more of a tribute for the 24 seniors who were playing in their final game at the Fargodome. After all, here is what they have accomplished in the past four years: a 51-7 record, a 13-1 playoff record and a 23-game winning streak – the longest of any college football team in the nation, at any level.

Do these seniors comprehend the impact they have had on NDSU, the Fargo-Moorhead area, the state of North Dakota and, yes, Frisco, where they will play Jan. 4 for a chance to become only the second FCS team to three-peat?

“A little bit,” said one of those seniors, defensive tackle Cole Jirik. “My first year here, we didn’t fill the dome. You could walk up and get tickets to the game if you wanted to. And now to see the impact, to see all the little kids wearing Bison jerseys is cool. To see how much support this town gives this football team is awesome. It’s unbelievable.”

NCAA officials certainly aren’t crying that NDSU won. Had they known about NDSU’s rabid following, they may have been wishing the Bison would have won that 2010 quarterfinal game at Eastern Washington. That’s the year only 13,027 fans showed up to watch Eastern Washington beat Delaware in the first title game played in Frisco.

In the past two national-championship games in which the Bison beat Sam Houston State, attendance increased to 20,586 and 21,411. More than half the stadium was filled with Bison fans. And it didn’t hurt that Sam Houston fans had an easy drive to Frisco.

It’s very similar to 2005 through 2007, when Appalachian State won three straight titles in Chattanooga, Tenn. – where attendance ranged from more than 19,000 to 23,000.

“Appalachian State was a hot commodity, but when they didn’t make it, there were a few more tickets to be purchased by fans,” said J.D. Hamilton of the NCAA.

That may be the case this year – especially with Sam Houston out of the picture. It’s doubtful that Towson or Eastern Washington will claim their allotted 4,500 tickets. That could mean more tickets for those Bison fans who haven’t already made plans.

The goal for the NDSU Alumni Association is to attract 10,000 Bison fans – not to the game – but to the pep fest on Jan. 3 scheduled to be held at the Dr Pepper baseball park for the second straight year. If that happens, two-thirds of Toyota Stadium could very well be inundated with Bison fans on Jan. 4.

“There is an extraordinary following for North Dakota State right now,” Hamilton said. “They have as solid of a following as most any other institution in the country. After three years, their fans know how big of a deal it is.”

It’s certainly a big deal for Frisco, known as the fastest-growing community in the country.

“I don’t want to jinx you all, but it would be nice to have you down here again,” Frisco Mayor Maher Masso said the day before Friday night’s win.

That’s because Frisco officials estimate they took in nearly $3 million during last year’s national championship game. It’s a city that loves its sports: It has four minor-league franchises, it is currently constructing a $115 million, 12,000-seat indoor stadium as part of the Dallas Cowboys new headquarters, and it was just awarded the 2016 NCAA Division II men’s basketball Elite Eight Tournament. Certainly something for Minnesota State Moorhead to shoot for.

“On a local level, there is a lot of excitement for sports and the FCS championship,” Masso said. “But we can’t quite match Fargo’s excitement.”

The excitement is highly visible when the Bison play at home. Motels, restaurants, bars and shops attract thousands of Bison fans from out of town. And for the past three years, fans have been filling the 21-year-old Fargodome – which has helped the Fargodome generate three times more money than what it was expecting for 2013.

When NDSU’s seniors were freshmen, the average Fargodome attendance was 15,944. It surpassed 18,000 since then, reaching a peak of 18,613 this season – which ranks sixth among FCS teams.

“Obviously, the move to Division I has been a good thing,” said Charlie Johnson of the FM Convention and Visitors Bureau. “And obviously, building the Fargodome has been a good thing.”

And it has certainly been a good thing for NDSU, especially financially.

In addition to selling more than 12,000 season tickets this past season, the money the school is making from licensing royalties has skyrocketed. Guaranteed 10 percent of the wholesale cost of items like all those sweaters you see hanging in Scheels, NDSU’s royalties have increased from $94,469 in 2008 to $418,045 in 2013.

“I would guess football is a huge part of that,” said Troy Goergen, NDSU’s marketing director. “In marketing, there are only so many things you can control. But you can’t control wins and losses.”

Yes, only the players can do that. And these Bison are doing it so well, there were more curtain calls than a Broadway hit during the final 14 minutes of Friday night’s game. With 11 minutes remaining, the student section appropriately chanted: “Thank you, seniors.”

Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549

Schnepf’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com

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