OUR OPINION: Taking an in-depth look at UND’s football attendance

The 2014 University of North Dakota football team was a blocked field goal from posting a 6-6 record. As it was, the team's 5-7 record was probably well beyond the predictions of even the most fervent boosters when the team began practicing in Au...

Our Opinion
Our Opinion

The 2014 University of North Dakota football team was a blocked field goal from posting a 6-6 record. As it was, the team’s 5-7 record was probably well beyond the predictions of even the most fervent boosters when the team began practicing in August.
But as the program turned heads on the field, it failed to draw universal interest from the fan base. A recent Herald report noted that UND drew an average of 7,485 fans per home game in 2014 – the lowest average attendance since the opening of the Alerus Center in 2001. The average was 900 fewer fans per game than in 2013, which was a dismal campaign that ended with a 3-8 record, and was approximately 2,500 fewer than when the team won the NCAA Division II national title in 2001.
What’s needed to energize the fan base and correspondingly spark ticket sales when UND takes the field in coming seasons?
Good question, but really it’s a simple formula and one we feel coach Bubba Schweigert already understands.
A) Win.
B) Win with players who hail from North Dakota and places near here.
Really, it’s that easy.
As noted, UND this year went 5-7, and had highly touted Montana on the ropes in the waning seconds before the visiting Grizzlies blocked a North Dakota field goal and moments later converted it into their own game-winning score. But as UND surpassed expectations on the field, we were surprised at the ho-hum response from local fans.
What caused this?
A few possibilities:
n When UND moved from NCAA Division II to Division I seven seasons ago, the culture changed in a way that proved unfavorable to some of the local fan base.
Instead of seeking the best possible players from the state and region, UND reached far to fill certain needs. It’s possible it created a rift, not only among fans but also among the players themselves.
n The re-emergence of the UND men’s hockey program has had an effect.
It’s probably no coincidence that attendance at UND football games is better early in the season, prior to the start of hockey. UND is among the nation’s best in hockey now, but the early 1990s weren’t great for the program, which was 11-23-4 in 1993-94 before edging back over the .500 mark in 1995-96, at 19-18-1.
Back then, hockey just wasn’t the force it is today, and perhaps the football team benefited from it.
n The shine is coming off the Alerus Center.
We think it’s a great place to see a football game, but it’s no longer new, like it was when UND was drawing so well in the early 2000s. And while the Alerus and its comfortable domed environment is close to campus, it’s just not on campus.
Memorial Stadium wasn’t nearly as comfortable as the Alerus, but it is literally on campus. In 2000, the last season at Memorial, UND averaged 8,658 fans - almost 1,200 more than this season.
n UND just hasn’t been great at football.
Since moving to Division I in 2008, UND is 36-41, including 3-8 in 2010 and 2013. A 28-13 loss in 2009 to the University of Sioux Falls - an NAIA school from South Dakota - may have especially soured fans.
So where does all this leave Schweigert as he yearns to bring the program back to significance and again be a team that’s a great draw for local fans?
He already has declared his intent to intensely recruit North Dakota. That’s a good start, and we likewise consider northern Minnesota and southern Manitoba as UND’s home territory.
There’s good news on that front, too: Of 16 high school players who have so far given verbal commitments to come to UND this fall, eight are from North Dakota or within a two-hour drive of campus. People enjoy seeing local kids playing for the state’s premier university. We have no issues with non-regional players coming to UND, but they should supplement - not dominate - the program.
Also, Schweigert would be wise to further portray his team as a blue-collar bunch. That seemed to work this year, as the group’s lunch-pail approach to the game captured the attention of the fans who attended games.
And mostly, Schweigert needs to continue being a cheerleader for the program. He needs to hit the highway, recruit the best players in the region and rejuvenate a leery fan base and distant alumni. He has vowed to do this, and already is hard at it. All signs show that he will continue.
Then, UND needs to win. Beating NDSU next season wouldn’t hurt.
It’s a big list, we know. But it’s one that will bring fans back to UND football games.
- Korrie Wenzel for the Herald

Opinion by Korrie Wenzel
Korrie Wenzel has been publisher of the Grand Forks Herald and Prairie Business Magazine since 2014.

He is a member of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. board of directors and, in the past, has served on boards for Junior Achievement, the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, United Way, Empire Arts Center, Cornerstones Career Learning Center and Crimestoppers.

As publisher, Wenzel oversees news, advertising and business operations at the Herald, as well as the newspaper's opinion content.

Wenzel can be reached at 701-780-1103, or via Twitter via @korriewenzel.
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