FARGO — Most, if not all, of the more than 18,000 fans who fill the Fargodome on a North Dakota State football Saturday would likely not recognize Alyson Vander Steen, even though they constantly interact with her throughout the afternoon.
That's fine with Vander Steen. When she's not noticed, that means her job is going smoothly.
The NDSU assistant athletic director for marketing and fan engagement, like the football team, prepares all week for home Saturdays at Gate City Bank Field.
Vander Steen makes sure everything flows smoothly with the production that surrounds the action on the field during home football games. Among her duties are playing music for promotions and game breaks, watching for media timeouts and calling to the video board to see what's coming up next, while communicating with her game day team via headset.
“My job is to basically orchestrate the game, everything outside of the game that’s not physically playing," said Vander Steen, who is entering her second year at NDSU. “It’s a little daunting at times. Most people probably don’t realize it’s down to a second for us.”
So from about 50 minutes prior to kickoff until about 20 minutes following the game's completion, Vander Steen is in game day mode, following a script that is around 20 pages.
"To me the game day script is really impressive," NDSU athletic director Matt Larsen said. "Every second of that football Saturday is scripted. ... All those folks making that game day happen and they do it seamlessly."
During home games, Vander Steen is located in the press box and in front of her laptop, seated next to public-address announcer Dan Michaels.
"Like a producer on a TV show, she's the one who keeps the whole thing on script," said Troy Goergen, a senior associate athletic director for external operations.
She's communicating with Richard Kopp, who does live event video production for the Fargodome; Sigurd Johnson, the director of athletic bands at NDSU; and Michaels. Vander Steen is also calling the shots for her game day team via headset. She said Kopp does a good job of anticipating what to play on the video boards as the game unfolds.
“We prepare as much as humanly possible," Vander Steen said. "Things are going to happen that you probably don’t prepare for. ... It is nerve-wracking and you get a little superstitious. Did I put my pens out in the same way as I did before?”
Vander Steen said while there is a script, sometimes the best moments in a game happen organically. It can be as simple as finding the right spectator on a fan camera.
“You find that 10-year-old kid that can really dance and you just leave it and you let it go," Vander Steen said. "That’s kind of the fun of it.”
The team's pregame entrance is one of the signature elements for home football games. The Gold Star Marching Band goes through its pregame performance before the lights go down in the stadium. Then the entrance video plays with a countdown showing on the high-definition video boards and the song "Thunderstruck" blaring over the speakers.
“Everyone loves the intro video," Vander Steen said. "It’s like a piece of history in its own.”
When the countdown hits zero, the video boards cut to the Bison coming out of the locker room under the stadium. There are loud cannon shots as the players stream through the large inflatable helmet onto the field.
"It’s an adrenaline rush," Vander Steen said. "When the guys hit the doors and they come open, the adrenaline comes flooding. 'We’re doing this, it’s going, it’s live.'"
Last season, Vander Steen had to improvise for two early-season games. In the season opener against Cal Poly, the lights went out in the first quarter, causing a 23-minute delay. A couple of weeks later, the lights didn't turn off for the entrance video for the game against North Alabama.
“It became more ‘How do we keep fans semi-entertained in the dark?’” Vander Steen said of the Cal Poly game.
She played music and went back and forth with the band to "give them some love."
"They do a great job for us," Vander Steen said.
When the lights didn't turn off against North Alabama, Vander Steen had to make a quick decision.
"When the lights didn’t go out, you kind of have to make a knee-jerk reaction of 'We’ve got to go.'" Vander Steen said. “That's what we did and it worked out. You move forward with the rest of the game and try not to let it get to you."
Those aforementioned situations were two examples of going off script that fans noticed. Vander Steen takes note of being off script, even if it's a detail that most people couldn't tell was not planned.
“It is very scripted out so when something is 10 seconds off, for me that’s like an ‘Oh man, I didn’t do my job.’ And to the average fan, they don’t even notice," Vander Steen said.
Vander Steen said one of the challenges is to maintain the tradition at NDSU with some in-game elements, while also trying to add new twists to the production. Her game day team is around 11, including approximately five student interns.
Vander Steen added the marketing and fan engagement team tries its best to respond to feedback from the fans.
“We do get some feedback and we try to take it as objectively as we can," she said. "We want to keep our fans happy, but it’s also very hard to keep 19,000 fans happy. Not everybody likes the same stuff. It’s appreciated and we do the best we can to adjust.”
For Vander Steen, her typical game day starts around 6:30 a.m. in her office in the Sanford Health Athletic Complex. She goes over the game scripts again as she makes final preparations. She usually walks to the Fargodome at about 8 a.m. Her day concludes about 11 hours later.
Selecting the right music can be a challenge for Vander Steen, with the Fargodome crowd covering a wide range of ages. She wants to keep playing the classics, while also sprinkling in current hits, which often help engage the student section.
“It’s difficult. You try to stay current, you try to throw in the oldies and you try to keep everybody happy," Vander Steen said. “We have a diverse crowd in there and we try, at some point, to make everybody feel like they had a great moment at the game. So that’s important. ... Our students impact our games a lot and they are very valuable to have them there and they make a difference.”
Vander Steen's goal is to have her finger on the pulse of what fans wants, while also staying anonymous.
“I do my job because I’m behind the scenes and that’s where I’m best at," Vander Steen said.