FARGO — It appears the two smallest crowds for North Dakota State football games this season will be the first two Division I FCS playoff games. About 2,000 tickets were still available as of Thursday afternoon for Saturday morning’s quarterfinal clash with Colgate at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.
The response from NDSU athletic director Matt Larsen was twofold.
“Grateful for all the fans that continue to support us in great numbers compared to other FCS schools,” he said. “Disappointed in the drop of attendance when you look at the incredible run our team has been on. We’re undefeated, 12-0 with the No. 1 seed and empty seats in the dome is disappointing.”
NDSU drew 17,007 in the 52-10 win over Montana State last weekend in a facility that carries a capacity of almost 19,000, including standing-room only tickets. The Bison drew at least 18,008 for all seven regular season games. The Bison drew 17,008 fans in last season's quarterfinals victory against Wofford at the Fargodome.
Ironically, NDSU’s unparalleled success may be playing a role in fans being less engaged. Most of its games have essentially been over by halftime because of big leads. The rise of the greatest championship dynasty in college football history came in a large part because of the dome.
Noise levels easily topping 100 decibels were common during the run of five straight titles from 2011-15. A loud rock concert is said to carry a decibel level of around 120.
“A large portion of our success, yeah, we have great players and coaches, but we’ve had the best home-field advantage through the run,” Larsen said. “It’s no accident it’s hard for teams to come in here, and when the place is sold out, it has a huge impact on our success. To have 1,500 to 2,000 empty seats, that impacts things. You hate to take things for granted, you hear we’re going to make it to the semifinals or Frisco. But, boy oh boy, one step at a time, and that means putting our team in the best spot to be successful.”
On the national landscape, NDSU is faring much better than the rest of the FCS. Kennesaw State (Ga.) drew 3,515 fans for its quarterfinal game against Wofford, prompting the local newspaper and Owls head coach Brian Bohannon to take action with commentary this week.
Sports editor John Bednarowski of the Marietta Daily Journal wrote, “The Kennesaw State fan base embarrassed itself on a national level last Saturday.”
There was rain, Bednarowski wrote, but temperatures were also in the 50s.
Bohannon, in his weekly press conference, said he was disappointed for his players. He said he spent a lot of time in the past year trying to improve attendance, but said he doesn’t talk about it anymore because “he doesn’t want to bring up a sore subject with our kids.”
Bohannon pointed to the school’s enrollment of 35,000 and a large population base close to the Kennesaw campus.
“The first thing they look at when they come onto the field is the student section in the stands,” Bohannon said. “When they go out and put that ‘KS’ on, it’s not just for their teammates, it’s for this university. … I get frustrated because I want what’s best for the kids and they deserve better. … If we’re going to do Division I football, then let’s do it. Let’s do it the right way.”
Weber State (Utah) was the next-best after NDSU, drawing 8,838 for its game against Southeast Missouri State. South Dakota State was the lowest of the eight games with 3,042 against Duquesne University (Pa.), although that was played in a snowstorm.
“I think we’re fortunate. Overall we have an incredible fan base,” Larsen said.
Overall, it appears student attendance declined this season, a trend in recent years that last year prompted the athletic department to take approximately 570 of the allotted student tickets and make them available to the general season ticket base.
“It’s something where we take a look at every year,” Larsen said. “We look at the whole operation, from the tailgate to student tickets to season tickets. We always want to evaluate it. At the end of the day, we want to have the best home-field advantage for our team and that means people in the seats.”