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McFeely: NDSU football takes different route for latest 'destination' game

Will get game in Nashville while also scheduling revenue-generating home game against Tennessee State

BisonNissanStadium.jpg
North Dakota State is scheduled to play against Tennessee State in 2025 at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn., as part of a home-and-home agreement between the football programs.
Christopher Hanewinckel / USA TODAY Sports
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FARGO — Tennessee State is located in the tourist destination city of Nashville and plays its home games in Nissan Stadium, a 69,000-seat facility that is home to the NFL's Tennessee Titans.

That made for a unique opportunity for North Dakota State's football program, which has taken to scheduling so-called "destination" games as a way to make money and provide a benefit for its passionate fan base.

NDSU announced Wednesday it finalized a home-and-home series with Tennessee State, a Football Championship Subdivision school that plays in the Ohio Valley Conference. The deal had been in the works for months. The Tigers will come to Fargo in 2024 and the Bison will travel to Nashville in 2025.

That means Bison fans will have had the opportunity to travel to unique away games for four straight seasons, beginning last fall at Arizona. The next three, beginning in the fall of 2023, are based on different models, showing how NDSU has had to get creative as it's found scheduling games against higher-level Football Bowl Subdivision games difficult since elevating to the top of FCS in 2011.

All the games will provide a getaway for fans, recruiting fodder for coaches and — perhaps most important — revenue for the athletic department.

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A look at the next three destination games:

Eastern Washingon vs. NDSU at U.S. Bank Stadium

Minneapolis

Sept. 2, 2023

The Bison will play the traditionally powerful Eagles at the 66,860-seat home of the NFL's Minnesota Vikings to kick off the 2023 season. The Twin Cities are a four-hour drive from Fargo, home to NDSU's biggest alumni base and a key recruiting territory for the football program.

It's possible the game could draw nearly 40,000 fans, although ticket prices and packages haven't yet been announced.

The framework for this game follows that of NDSU's 2019 game against Butler at Target Field, home of Major League Baseball's Minnesota Twins. NDSU will get a guaranteed amount of money from the stadium — which makes revenue off concessions, alcohol sales, etc. — and can make more based on attendance.

U.S. Bank Stadium view
Inside U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Don Davis / Forum News Service file photo

NDSU will be paid a guarantee of $350,000 by U.S. Bank Stadium and could make as much as $600,000 based on ticket sales, according to a copy of the contract obtained by The Forum.

The school's payout elevates as ticket sales go higher. If the game sells 25,000 tickets, NDSU receives a $400,000 guarantee. If it sells 30,000 tickets, NDSU receives $450,000. If it hits 35,000 tickets, the school gets $475,000 and so on up to a maximum of $600,000 for 60,000 tickets sold.

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NDSU generated $667,717 in revenue from the Target Field game, according to documents obtained by The Forum. Minus NDSU's expenses of $102,275, the athletic department netted $565,442 from the game, which resulted in a 57-10 Bison victory.

An announced crowd of 34,544 attended.

NDSU at Colorado at Folsom Field

Boulder, Colo.

Aug. 31, 2024

Not technically a "destination" game in the truest sense of the definition, but NDSU fans have traditionally traveled well to games against FBS opponents. Colorado is a member of the Pac-12 Conference and plays in 50,183-seat Folsom Field.

An estimated 10,000 NDSU fans traveled to Tucson last September to see the Bison's game against Arizona, a 31-28 loss.

Getting tickets to the Arizona game was easy because the Wildcats don't fill their big stadium for most games. Tickets to the Colorado game might be tougher because celebrity coach Deion Sanders is the program's new leader this year.

Boulder is a shorter drive from Fargo than Frisco, Texas, and there are affordable flights to Denver direct from Hector International Airport so there will likely be thousands of Bison fans trying to make the game.

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Sep 12, 2015; Boulder, CO, USA; General wide view of Folsom field in the second quarter of the game between the Massachusetts Minutemen against the Colorado Buffaloes. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 12, 2015; Boulder, CO, USA; General wide view of Folsom field in the second quarter of the game between the Massachusetts Minutemen against the Colorado Buffaloes. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

This game follows the traditional FBS vs. FCS model. A larger school pays the smaller school a guaranteed amount for a home game. It is meant to provide a profitable home game and victory for the host and important cash for the visitor.

Colorado will pay NDSU $700,000 for the game.

Arizona paid the Bison $425,000. Oregon, NDSU's last scheduled game against an FBS opponent (a makeup from a canceled contest in the COVID-stricken season of 2020) will write a check for $675,000 in 2028.

While the figures sound large and many FCS schools depend on revenue from FBS games to make ends meet — some schools even play two FBS games in one season — the net numbers often aren't so impressive. If NDSU has a traveling party of 150 including players, coaches, staff, administrators and various others, that's 150 round-trip plane tickets. Also hotel rooms and catered meals. The bill adds up quickly, chewing into the revenue.

NDSU at Tennessee State at Nissan Stadium

Nashville, Tenn.

Sept. 6, 2025

This is a new, creative model for the Bison. Unfortunately for them, Tennessee State is one of the few FCS schools for which it could work.

NDSU signed a straight home-and-home deal with the Tigers, meaning the Bison will play a game at Tennessee State's home field and in return the Bison will get a game against Tennessee State at the Fargodome.

NDSU won't get a guarantee or any revenue from the trip to Nashville, but filled an open date on its home schedule for 2024. That gives the Bison six home games that year.

Why is that important? According to athletic director Matt Larsen, NDSU generates an average of $643,000 in gross revenue for games at the Fargodome.

In other words, that $643,000 can serve as a "guarantee" for the destination game in Nashville, even though the Bison aren't technically getting a guarantee for traveling to Tennessee State.

BisonNissanStadium.jpg
North Dakota State is scheduled to play against Tennessee State in 2025 at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn., as part of a home-and-home agreement between the football programs.
Christopher Hanewinckel / USA TODAY Sports

NDSU also doesn't have to pay a six-figure guarantee to a one-off non-conference home opponent, as it usually does.

Tennessee State will presumably benefit financially, though, with increased ticket sales from traveling NDSU fans. The Tigers averaged 16,734 fans for six home games in 2022, but that included a crowd of 51,351 for its opener against Deion Sanders-led Jackson State.

This might be a one-off opportunity for NDSU since among FCS programs only Tennessee State regularly plays home games in an NFL stadium.

There aren't many others who play in large stadiums that would be befitting of the "destination game" title. According to the NCAA, the only regular home sites above roughly 30,000 are Tennesee State, Yale (Yale Bowl in New Haven, Conn.), Penn (Franklin Field in Philadelphia) and Jackson State (Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson).

NDSU officials have said they've been contacted by a stadium in the Dallas area for a potential neutral-site game and they've mentioned Las Vegas and Phoenix as other possibilities.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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