Bison vs. James Madison title tilt draws record television numbers for FCS game

Around 2.7 million viewers watched the NDSU and James Madison squrae off in the FCS national title game on Saturday, Jan. 11. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO — North Dakota State’s dramatic victory against James Madison for the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision national title was the most-watched televised Bison football game, also drawing the largest audience for an FCS game.

The game was carried on ABC-TV, marking the first time the FCS championship game had been aired on network television since 1994. That helped the game draw bigger television numbers.

“Overall pleased with where it ended and hopefully it’s a good enough number that ESPN and ABC would consider having that game on network television again in the future,” said NDSU athletic director Matt Larsen. “When you can showcase the two best teams in the subdivision and have it be a great game, I think that’s really positive for the subdivision.”

An average of nearly 2.7 million viewers watched NDSU hold off the Dukes for a 28-20 victory at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. Those numbers are according to , a website dedicated to TV ratings.

The previous top television game for NDSU was against South Dakota State in the 2016 FCS quarterfinals. That game drew an average of 1.984 million viewers and was on ESPN, which has an association with ABC. WDAY-TV, which is owned by Forum Communications Co., is an ABC affiliate.


Larsen said Saturday’s championship game was a good representation for both teams involved and FCS football overall.

“It was a really well-contested game,” Larsen said. “You’re hopeful that people tuned in for most if not all of the game. In doing that, the more you learn about NDSU and James Madison. Outside of being good for NDSU, I think that’s just good for the brand of FCS football. There’s a lot of folks out there who don’t quite understand what it is.”

NDSU and James Madison previously played for an FCS national championship in January of 2018, for the 2017 season title. That game, which NDSU won 17-13, averaged 1.515 million viewers and was on ESPN2. That previously was the highest-rated title game NDSU had played in before last Saturday.

Larsen said in recent seasons, the FCS playoffs have seen more television coverage with the games going from not being televised, to ESPN all being streamed on ESPN3 to more games being carried on ESPN and ESPN2.

“I think ESPN has definitely seen the value of this subdivision grow and the value of the playoff system grow,” Larsen said. “We’ve seen the evolution and the progression toward much greater coverage. Hopefully, ABC sees the same thing that ESPN and the NCAA have in terms of value of this product.”

The most-watched sporting event in NDSU history came last March when more than 6 million viewers watched the Duke Blue Devils, with Zion Williamson, score an 85-62 victory against the Bison in the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament.

Here are some of the top TV numbers from Nielsen ratings for Bison football games, according to

  • NDSU vs. James Madison in FCS title game on ABC in Jan. 2020, 2.686 million viewers.

  • NDSU vs. South Dakota State in FCS quarterfinals on ESPN in Dec. 2016 drew an average of 1.984 million viewers. It is the most-viewed television Bison football game.

  • NDSU vs. Colgate in FCS quarterfinals on ESPN in Dec. 2018 drew an average of 1.806 million viewers.

  • NDSU vs. Illinois State in FCS quarterfinals on ESPN in Dec. 2019, 1.783 million.

  • NDSU vs. Northern Iowa in FCS quarterfinals on ESPN in Dec. 2015, 1.644 million.

  • NDSU vs. James Madison in FCS title game on ESPN2 in Jan. 2018, 1.515 million.

  • NDSU vs. Illinois State in FCS title game on ESPN2 in Jan. 2015, 1.44 million.

  • NDSU vs. Jacksonville State in FCS title game on ESPN2 in Jan. 2016, 1.35 million.

  • NDSU vs. Towson in FCS title game on ESPN2 in Jan. 2014, 1.2 million.

  • NDSU vs. Sam Houston in FCS title game on ESPN2 in Jan. 2013, 1.1 million.

  • NDSU vs. Montana in FCS Kickoff game on ESPN in Aug. 2015, 981,000.

  • NDSU vs. Iowa on ESPN2 in Sept. 2016, 968,000.

  • NDSU vs. Wofford in FCS quarterfinals on ESPN2 in Dec. 2017, 849,000.

  • NDSU vs. SDSU in FCS semifinals on ESPN2 in Dec. 2018, 846,000.

  • NDSU vs. Charleston Southern on ESPN in FCS Kickoff game in Aug. 2016, 797,000.

  • NDSU vs. Sam Houston State on ESPN2 in FCS semifinals in Dec. 2017, 604,000.

  • NDSU vs. Kansas State in Aug. 2013 on Fox Sports 1, 585,000.

  • NDSU vs. Montana State in FCS semifinals on ESPN2 in Dec. 2019, 518,000.

No figures were available for NDSU's first championship, which came against Sam Houston State in January 2012.

Peterson covers college athletics for The Forum, including Concordia College and Minnesota State Moorhead. He also covers the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks independent baseball team and helps out with North Dakota State football coverage. Peterson has been working at the newspaper since 1996.
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