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Jeff Kolpack, Published April 05 2014

Scheels Arena could be an option for Bison basketball during BSA renovation

Fargo - The North Dakota State men’s basketball program soared to new heights last month when it won a game in the NCAA tournament. The next time the Bison take the court at home, they will also be on new ground.

Physically, on new ground. The renovation of the Bison Sports Arena means for the next two years NDSU will call somewhere else its home. If it ends up being Scheels Arena in southwest Fargo, the Bison can make a call to the University of Nebraska-Omaha for any advice.

The Mavericks, who will be getting a new arena of their own in two years, have been playing at Ralston Arena in a suburb located eight miles from Omaha. Ralston is also home to the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League and if the Bison were to go to Scheels, they would also have to share the building with another USHL team: the Force Force.

No problem, say the administrators at both UNO and Ralston Arena.

“It actually works out really well,” said Stan Benis, the general manager of Ralston Arena. “The Lancers are the prime tenant per se, they get first choice on dates but they’ve been really good with working with the basketball team.”

NDSU athletic director Gene Taylor has reiterated that a deal to play in Scheels is not finalized and there’s still work to be done before it becomes reality. But there’s no questioning what outgoing Bison head coach Saul Phillips thinks of the idea.

“An unbelievable temporary home,” he said.

It’s really about the only viable top-notch solution. The Fargo Civic Auditorium is too small for a college-sized court and seats a little more than 3,000 for a basketball game. Bentson Bunker Fieldhouse on campus doesn’t seat enough, with a capacity of more than 1,000. (Bentson Bunker is the likely temporary home for NDSU’s women’s basketball and wrestling teams).

The knock on the Fargodome is it’s too successful in regards to consistently getting suitable dates to play.

About the only drawback to Scheels is the distance from campus (8½ miles) and Phillips said that’s something that can be addressed.

“I have to get creative in that,” he said. “If I have to drive my Jeep back and forth with four students at a time, then I guess I’ll have to do it. I’m going to do everything I can to keep the students involved.”

The most probable solution is a bussing system from campus. On the other hand, the southwest Fargo location could draw a whole another subset of fans.

If NDSU does play in Scheels for two years, it’s possible fans could drink something they never legally have at a Bison athletic event: alcohol. Since the building is off campus, NDSU could have that option. John Kram, the general manager for Scheels Arena, said that hasn’t been discussed.

UNO assistant athletic director Mike Kemp said the Mavericks obtained permission from the Nebraska Board of Regents to serve alcohol when it started its hockey program in 1997. The Mavericks hockey team plays its game at CenturyLink Center and shares the venue with Creighton University basketball.

That permission transferred to Ralston when the Maverick basketball team moved there. Alcohol sales have been almost a non-issue, Kemp said.

“To be quite honest, over the course of 17 years, we’ve had a minimum number of incidents,” he said. “I will say this: the number of low incidents has been quite impressive.”

It certainly doesn’t hurt the revenue column. Kemp said beer sales are lumped in with all concessions with the average spent by fans being $6 to $7 per person per event.

Benis said the building gets 30 to 35 percent of revenue from beer sales from the Lancers with the Mavericks lower at less than 20 percent. He said the Summit League, the conference of home of NDSU and UNO, has been good to work with getting suitable dates.

Generally, basketball games were played Wednesday and Saturday and the Lancers Friday and Saturday. There were six doubleheaders this season with the Mavericks playing in the afternoon and the Lancers at night. It takes a crew of about 30 people about one hour and 20 minutes to turn the facility from basketball to hockey.

Scheels has never hosted a basketball game, so Kram said he was uncertain of the turnaround time at his facility. He said he would consult with Omaha on how they do it.

Work is beginning this month to transform to the BSA to Sanford Health Athletic Complex with the prime venue being the 5,700-seat Scheels Center. Phillips said the Bison would probably practice in Bentson Bunker with other venues in the works.

At Ralston, Benis said the Mavericks generally practice in the arena the day before a game. That situation won’t last much longer; both the Maverick basketball and hockey teams will play in the 7,500-seat $86 million UNO Community Arena on campus when it opens.

It includes suites and a club lounge. The beauty for the school: instead of seeing a graduated scale of its concession revenue stay at CenturyLink and Ralston arena, it will now be able to keep it.

“That’s a huge issue for us,” Kemp said.

Of the final price tag, $39 million is being funded by the university and $39 million is coming from private donations, according to the Omaha World-Herald newspaper. UNO will pay for its share through ticket revenue, concession and premium seat options.

NDSU, meanwhile, is funding the entire $41 million price tag for the Sanford Health Athletic Complex privately. In the meantime, it could get a taste of sharing a venue if the Scheels Arena option materializes.

“If Scheels Arena hadn’t been built, I don’t know what we could do at this point,” Phillips said.

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546.

Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia