Photo by J. Alan Paul Photography
NDSU Director of Athletics Matt Larsen dishes us on everything in the world of college athletics. From tailgating space and creative donation strategies to FBS rumors and conference realignment, Larsen breaks down where NDSU falls in the trendiest Division I athletic topics.
LARSEN TAKES ON FAN QUESTIONS
Question: Is Team Makers growing fast enough to ensure the athletic department won’t take a dip in funding after the $800K cut from the state?
Matt Larsen: I think across the nation in college athletics, there’s great emphasis and stress on external revenue–whether that’s multimedia, corporate sponsorships or donations because across the nation you’re seeing a reduction in institutional and state support or student support for athletics. So to grow, the external revenues need to grow so we’re fortunate here because we have some great things in place.
That was a big reason why we put the Bison Pride Fund in place because a lot of our contributions annually are tied to tickets. We’ve seen that the fan base stretches all across the country so reaching out to folks across the country—who don’t have tickets, who believe in the program or who are passionate about the success—to annually support the program. So that’s where we need to see our greatest growth in terms of revenue—donors or people who either aren’t currently giving or don’t have tickets. It’s getting out to those folks and get their support on an annual basis.
Question: What’s the incentive to give to NDSU when you don’t have season tickets?
Larsen: I think the biggest thing that has helped drive (Team Makers) memberships is the opportunity to get access to single-game tickets. As a Team Maker member, as a minimum $100 donation, you get put in a pool to get a request for single-game tickets. We’ve capped our season ticket number at 12,000. It’s been that way for a number of years, but instead of just opening up single-game sales to the general public, we’ve given priority to Team Makers to have somebody in Arizona that can come back for at least one game out of the year. Now they have an opportunity because of their Team Maker or Bison Pride membership gets them access to those tickets that in the past, they wouldn’t have had access to.
“WE HAVE ONE OF, IF NOT THE BEST TAILGATES AT THE FCS LEVEL AND PROBABLY ONE OF THE BEST IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL.”
Question: What’s it going to take to get more general admission tailgating spots for football?
Larsen: There are people from the city, police to the Fargo Dome Authority to NDSU, NDSU Athletics, NDSU police, and depending on where we expand to, is it NDSU property, is it not? There are a lot of different groups. It’s not just NDSU Athletics saying, “Hey, we’re going to expand” just because there are people like law enforcement among others. There are a lot of pieces and a lot of cooks that have a lot of say.
We’ve been fortunate. We’ve had very few incidents and it’s run very well. There is some sensitivity to expanding the alcohol piece so I think any conversations about expanding the footprint for tailgating has to be a comprehensive conversation between all of those groups. We have to make sure one, is it the right decision, two, what’s the best location, three, what are any potential issues or concerns? We need to make sure those are addressed before we go down that road.
The good thing is that it’s a great problem to have. The fact that we have one of, if not the best tailgates at the FCS level and probably one of the best in college football. The fact that we’re at a point where we have to look at expanding is a great issue to have.
Question: Fan attendance was great at basketball games, but how can NDSU get more enthusiasm from the student section?
Larsen: It’s interesting because student attendance is a national issue. I would say we’ve been fortunate because I don’t think we’ve seen it drop as significantly as a lot of other places have. The tough part about basketball always is, you have—because it spans two semesters—people get excited and engaged and energized for nonconference, and then they’re gone again for three or four weeks and you lose some of that momentum. So you try to build it back up again for conference play. I would say I was relatively pleased with our attendance last year.
I think the next big step for us is to get it more consistent, but also, to get them to understand—kind of like what they do in football—that they can make a huge impact on the home court advantage. To get them standing up, to get them energized, get them loud and cheering and all those types of things, for them to be able to see the impact that they can have on the game. I know our marketing staff is always working hard, trying to think of different ideas and different promotions to engage the students.
“THERE ARE A LOT MORE FCS TEAMS THAT HAVE ELEVATED THE NUMBER OF SCHOLARSHIPS WHO ARE NOW ELIGIBLE TO PLAY FBS PROGRAMS.”
Question: Why is it so hard for NDSU to schedule FBS opponents?
Larsen: I think it’s because there are so many (FCS teams). The good thing is that it’s trending back now with the Big Ten announcing that they are going to start playing FCS schools again on the years where a Big Ten school only has four home Big Ten competitions. They will be able to play a Big Ten school now.
But what we’ve seen is, there are a lot more FCS teams that have elevated the number of scholarships who are now eligible to play FBS programs. You lost the Big Ten there for awhile, and added more FCS schools so I think if you’re an FBS program, you’re looking at okay, I can play x school, who isn’t as physical, hasn’t had the same success against FBS programs as North Dakota State has, I’m going to play them.
To be honest with you, I don’t necessarily blame them. We do the same things, strategically, when we schedule, we look at what’s the best matchup, what’s best for our team, week one, week two or week three.
So, what we’ve tried to do is, one, we’re always going to push to get an FBS program if we can. But we’re trying to be creative in other ways, too, if we can’t, whether it’s looking at neutral site spaces. Target Field is a great example, but other neutral opportunities where I think it could replace the same type of excitement around an FBS game and give fans the opportunity for our fans to experience something a little bit different. There are a couple of things that we’re doing in those non-FBS years that I think would really intrigue our fans, and would be a special opportunity for them as well, without having an FBS game.
Question: You said in the July mag that the FBS move is regional. Is it as simple as tough luck for NDSU, and good luck for programs like Appalachian State and Georgia Southern?
Larsen: I think it would be shortsighted for us if the Sun Belt reached out to us and said, “Hey, we’d love to have you join our conference for football,” because I know with our fan base, they like to travel, and I think if we’re in a regional conference, which the MAC and the Mountain West would be, they would be able to travel on the road and go to those games. To expect them to go to Georgia Southern and App. State and some of those other places, it’s a little harder to do. So you lose some of the cache of our program and you lose a little bit of that. If it’s one game here and there, I think our fans will go, but to have a schedule that is predominantly in the southeast part of the country, it probably doesn’t make sense for us.
We don’t recruit kids to go here from the southeast part of the country. We have some student-athletes but in terms of the institution, it’s not a recruiting area for them. It probably doesn’t make sense on a number of different levels.
Question: Was the decision for the Big 12 not to expand the biggest conference realignment decision in the past year?
Larsen: Yeah, because I think if they were to expand that would be the next big realignment phase that would have taken place; well, depending on how big they went and what conferences they went after. There was talk of Mountain West. There was talk of the American. Some (conferences) in our backyard and some aren’t, but I think the trickle down effect—if they were to take two from the American and two from the Mountain West or one from each—then what does that mean for the regions around there?
So you saw a lot of institutions either jockeying to get into the Big 12 or if those other (FBS) conferences were raided, jockeying to get into position for those. I think it was one of those things that it would have been the next big shift, but since it got put on hold right now, I think it’s put a big shift on as well.