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Bison AD Larsen says he expects sellout crowd for FCS semifinal against James Madison

North Dakota State athletic director Matt Larsen said he expects more than 18,000 fans for Friday's game against James Madison in the national semifinals.

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North Dakota State Athletic Director Matt Larsen surveys the Fargodome before kick off against East Tennessee State during the FCS quarterfinals on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021.
David Samson/Forum Communications Co.

FARGO — North Dakota State started the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs with smaller home crowds than the powerhouse program has become used to in the past decade.

There were 12,557 fans in a second-round victory against Southern Illinois at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. Not counting the pandemic-altered spring, that was the smallest home crowd since the first round of the 2010 playoffs.

There were 11,794 fans in attendance in NDSU’s quarterfinal victory against East Tennessee State, the smallest non-pandemic playoff crowd in the Division I era.

NDSU athletic director Matt Larsen had a mixed reaction to those crowd sizes.

“You are very grateful and appreciative of the people that are there,” Larsen said. “Those are our most loyal fans and I thought, honestly, both games had a good atmosphere. ... There’s a lot of programs around that country that would kill to have 12,000 fans at a game and be as engaged and as passionate as ours are.”

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On the flip side ...

“There’s a huge difference when our fan base doesn’t show out to 18,000 and it’s noticeable,” Larsen said. “When you’re not at 18,000 fans it’s a lot different. There is a different feel and a different vibe in there.”

Larsen is anticipating that vibe to change at 8:15 p.m. Friday when the No. 2-seeded Bison (12-1) host No. 3-seeded James Madison (12-1) in the semifinals in a battle of FCS heavyweights.

“I’m expecting a sellout,” Larsen said.

That means a crowd north of 18,000, which has been the norm in NDSU’s previous nine FCS semifinal appearances. The Bison averaged 18,260 fans in those previous semifinals.

Since the 2011 playoffs, crowds larger 18,000 fans were commonplace at the Fargodome in every round. That started to change in the 2017 quarterfinals against Wofford as the Bison drew 17,008 fans. That marked the first time NDSU had a playoff crowd less than 18,000 since a 2011 second-round game against James Madison. In 2018, the second-round game had 17,007 fans and the quarterfinals had 16,404 fans. In 2019, the second round had 15,690 fans and there were 14,132 in the quarterfinals.

“We’ve been fortunate enough to be 30-1 at home in the (FCS) playoffs.” Larsen said. “A lot of that has to do with (that) we have a really talented football team, but a big part of that has to do with our fanbase and the atmosphere that they create. When it’s not there, it’s noticeable and you certainly miss that.”

Larsen said he’s heard myriad reasons as to why crowds have been smaller in recent playoff history, including fan atmosphere, opponents, waiting until the semifinals with NDSU’s overwhelming success in the early rounds of the playoffs. He added some fans may still be leery of attending a large indoor gathering due to COVID-19.

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“The one piece that I can’t control and I don’t want to control is the fact that we win,” Larsen said. “That’s what we try to do here. We try to win at a high level. … The only thing I can say is I wish (fans) understood how hard it is to win a college football game. It’s really hard. I know sometimes our team doesn’t make it look like that, but it’s really hard to win college football games.”

Larsen said after this season, the athletic department is going to look at changes that could help boost attendance back to the higher levels seen for most of the past decade.

“If people aren’t coming for different reasons, we can’t just be deaf to those either,” Larsen said. “We need to be introspective and address the things that we can address and so that way people feel compelled to come back and support us in a great way.”

Larsen said on Monday the ticket office had markedly more activity than the Mondays before the second round and quarterfinal games. He also expects James Madison to purchase more than 250 tickets, which would be more than the previous two playoff opponents.

“It takes everybody. It takes our players, it takes our coaches, it takes our staff, it takes our fan base to get us over the finish line here and give us an opportunity to win on Friday,” Larsen said. “I’m hopeful that people are hanging from the rafters, it’s loud as can be and we make it really hard on James Madison.”

There have been some in the team’s fan base who are clamoring for NDSU to make the move to FBS with the Bison winning eight FCS national championships since 2011. That overwhelming success has caused some to lose interest in attending games.

“I have heard that a little bit,” Larsen said. “The one thing I would say is if NDSU wants to be attractive to other leagues, having a half-filled dome isn’t very attractive.”

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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