When UND comes to town, the games get rocking
The question on every Bison basketball fan’s mind this week should be, “Wioux is coming to town?”
The answer is thankfully in the question because flying down the I-29 is the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks.
For the first time since the D-II days, the two schools face off in a conference clash. The Hawks’ move into the Summit League was in part to rekindle the rivalry between the two biggest schools in the state.
But here is another question that should be posed to Bison fans: Are the Hawks really our biggest rival?
Conventional wisdom at this point would suggest that answer is no. Since the Bison left the North Central Conference and joined the Summit, the two teams haven’t played each other often. In fact, Saturday’s men’s basketball contest will be just the 11th time the two teams have played a game at the Division I level.
It is hard to maintain any relationship seeing someone just 11 times in a decade, much less a rivalry.
With the eye test, it is easy to say that South Dakota State has overtaken the Hawks as the premier Bison opponents. A quality conference opponent across all sports and the other Dakota state school, the Jacks tick off all the big boxes.
But, looking at the attendance numbers, it seems like UND still is the biggest draw. And that is how it should be.
Looking at the Bison attendance numbers for men’s basketball last year, NDSU averaged a home attendance of 2,757 for 15 home games. The North Dakota game drew 4,105 and the SDSU game 3,182. However, the Jacks came to town during the winter break for students, so that number should be taken with a grain of salt.
Going back one year further, UND drew the largest crowd in the inaugural season of NDSU basketball in the SHAC, with a 5,022 figure. SDSU ranked No. 4 that season at 4,805.
Going back even further, the 2010 matchup sold over 10,700 seats at the Fargodome, the largest crowd in program history. The 1996 D-II game against the Jacks ranks second in terms of actual attendance figures, which started being kept in the 1990-91 season.
UND’s numbers fall in line with NDSU’s. The Dec. 9, 2017 contest at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center was the only game to have a 3,000-plus attendance for the Fighting Hawks last season.
The atmosphere for any NDSU-UND contest feels a bit different. The 2015 football thrashing created a playoff-like atmosphere in the Fargodome. The 19,000-plus on hand were in full throat, as NDSU held North Dakota to a mere 61 yards of offense.
Football fans love to remind everyone of the old rivalry with the neighbors to the North on every fresh set of downs. Safe to speculate those will be back come Sept. 7 when the Fighting Hawks visit the Dome.
Other sports have seen a similar boost. Volleyball experienced a large attendance bump for their match against the Fighting Hawks. The crowd of 1,449 saw “Sold Out” signs on the door 30 minutes before the match back in the fall. The only other match that came close to that number was the Friday of Homecoming week against South Dakota at 1,369, otherwise the average attendance was under 1,000.
That said, some sports still need a little work. The first Summit League “North Dakota Derby” for women’s soccer was the lowest attended home match for UND last season. That match also was on the same day as the Vikings-Eagles game. Correlation doesn’t always equal causation, but this feels like a valid point. That would be the Carson Wentz effect in action.
Moving forward, it is time to fully embrace the rivalry with UND. With them joining the Missouri Valley Football Conference in two seasons, it will be back to a full-blown rivalry. Maybe by then the Bison will have a third trophy to fight for, after the Dakota Marker and FCS National Championship of course.