Photos by Hillary Ehlen
He was the first to put a full season of Bison football on television. Now, KVLY’s Vice President and General Manager, Jim Wareham has brought North Dakota State football to a statewide audience. He also has others wishing they would’ve done it first.
Coming to Fargo in 2011, Jim Wareham had no clue the kind of support North Dakota State football had. It took just one visit to the Fargodome to see how passionate the fans of the Bison were. “I was blown away. I used to be a Chicago Bears season ticket holder, but the energy in that place made me think,” Wareham said. That was when he learned that his station, KVLY, was only televising three Bison games each season. After what he witnessed at the Fargodome, he saw an opportunity.
“I looked at the guys I was with and wondered why we were only doing three of these games. We should do them all,” he said. What ensued was something that may puzzle the present-day Bison fan. “That summer in between seasons we sat down with Gene Taylor and Craig Bohl and they were excited because they felt like they never got any kind of coverage or any kind of respect,” said Wareham. The Vice President and General Manager of KVLY also went on to say that one of KVLY’s competitors gave NDSU football the “cold shoulder” when the school approached them about televising all of their games.
However, Wareham saw something that his competitors did not see in the Bison. “I saw it and I said this is a diamond,” he said. “I told them that I was patient and not to worry about winning right away. I told them that a TV partner sticks by you when you have a tough season and they ride with you when it’s a good season. We didn’t have to wait long for them to do it, they didn’t disappoint us.”
“I think by us showcasing the Bison and being able to put it on every Saturday, you allowed a fan base to really develop.”
That 2011 team that Wareham saw originally ended up finishing the season 14-1 and with their first FCS National Championship. The following season (another championship campaign for the Bison) was when KVLY televised every regular season football game. According to Wareham, they have continued to progress and make their coverage as sharp as possible.
“Obviously, over the course of those seasons, we upped our game. The first games were in standard definition, then we went to HD and then we brought in some guys from Wisconsin who do NHL, NBA and NFL games and we started bringing in freelancers who switch games for big times sports. We’d fly them in to just do Bison games. And the quality level went up to an even greater level and the Bison made things easy by going on the streak that they did,” he said.
Not only was North Dakota State on a roll on the field, but KVLY had pushed themselves ever higher in the television ratings. “The only sports franchise who beats the Bison in ratings in the market is the Vikings and not by a lot,” Wareham said. “It’s pretty phenomenal numbers and even our pregame show does non-Viking NFL numbers in the hour before the game.”
Another crucial element for former Athletics Director Gene Taylor and head coach Craig Bohl was to have a wide TV footprint. That is why Wareham pushed the Bison games to every corner of the state. Before Jim arrived at KVLY, there was only one statewide broadcast per season. “Coach Bohl really impressed on me at the time that he needed it because of recruiting,” Wareham said. “He said if I can go out to Western North Dakota and tell kids that your parents, grandparents, friends and family will be able to watch you on TV, that would be a big deal to a kid out there.”
It was also important for Taylor and Bohl to showcase that their games did have a wide broadcast distribution. In big recruiting markets like the Twin Cities or Omaha, it was vital for Bohl to show potential recruits that they would be playing on statewide TV every Saturday. That recruiting tactic is still used to this day. “If you go to NDSU, and you go to the rooms where they take recruits, that coverage map is in there somewhere,” Wareham said.
Bringing the Bison to a statewide audience has broadened the fan base too, according to Wareham. “I often compare it to the Chicago Cubs because I am a native Chicagoan,” he said. “They were the laughing stock of baseball in the 50s and 60s, they couldn’t even fill up Wrigley Field. Then, WGN bought the TV rights and put the Cubs on their superstation for 15 years. Now, the Cubs have a huge following in places other than Chicago. I think by us showcasing the Bison and being able to put it on every Saturday, you allowed a fan base to really develop.”
It did not come without opposition though. Wareham recalls the former General Manager in Bismarck being against putting the Bison on television throughout the entire state. “He didn’t believe in the Bison. He didn’t think it would do anything out West,” he said. “I later found out he didn’t want to do it because we would be preempting some golf on NBC and he didn’t want to get razzed by his golf buddies.”
Despite there being some slight pushback, Wareham believes much of his station’s success has to do with the product on the field. “We have a part in it, but they performed. The Bison are the main act and when you have a main act that is that good, everything is pretty easy,” he said. “And that is why the media went crazy here, everybody wants to ride on a winner.”
That is not to take away from what Wareham has done at KVLY. He has put together a consistently better viewing experience each season. Not only that, but he has one of the few true local sports broadcasts in the country. “Most stations in the country do not have the football program like we have here at KVLY. Many of them have been absorbed by ESPN or the big networks,” he said. “It used to be quite common to do a local production of local teams, but that has dried up. So I feel very privileged to be able to do this.”
Jim Wareham does not discount that luck was on his side when NDSU football practically fell into his lap in 2011. “It was like finding a jewel in the sand,” he said. “I just couldn’t believe it after going to my first game.” Now, as he and KVLY embark on their seventh full season of statewide Bison coverage, they look to improve on an already amazing telecast. For some televisions executives, that may seem like a tall task.
To Jim Wareham, the answer always seems to be right in front of his nose. Much like Bison football was right in front of his and every other station’s nose the whole time. Luckily, he was wise enough to take advantage.