It makes for great fodder on fan message boards, social media and media outlets that deal in propaganda — the idea that South Dakota State’s athletic department took part in a ticket conspiracy to keep North Dakota State fans from invading Dana Dykhouse Stadium on Saturday. There are variations on the story floating around, but the basic idea is that a big donor stepped out of the shadows (or was asked by SDSU) to buy up thousands of unsold tickets to the Dakota Marker game at reduced rates in order to hand them out for free. The mystery donor did this, the story goes, to keep Bison fans from buying thousands of tickets and turning the stadium in Brookings into a sea of green and yellow.
There are a couple of problems with the story, as best as I can tell.
First, SDSU athletic director Justin Sell says it’s not true.
Second, apparently nobody from the Fargo media contacted Sell to ask him about it until The Forum’s Jeff Kolpack called him Thursday morning. I called Sell later Thursday to record an interview for my 970 WDAY radio show and also asked about the alleged ticket conspiracy.
The full interview can be heard on my show Friday morning from 9 a.m. to noon. Here is the snippet of the interview that dealt with tickets:
Essentially, Sell said businesses and individuals bought all the remaining seats outside of season tickets, student tickets, suite and loge tickets — at full price — to distribute to employees or how they saw fit. He said the tickets were not sold at a discount and SDSU did not beg the businesses to buy up the tickets with the idea of keeping NDSU fans out of the game.
“No. Not at all. First of all, I appreciate the fervor of the Bison fan base. They’ve obviously done an incredible job supporting their team. What they do down at the national championship game is amazing. As a Missouri Valley Football Conference member, we’re obviously proud of what happens there,” Sell said. “This is part of what we’ve done. We do this for our Beef Bowl every year. We have corporate support that we’ve done in years past. It’s regular conversations we always have. They are looking to do some things for their employees.”
Sell said companies buy tickets for most games, but obviously the interest in the Bison game is greater than others. The Bison and Jackrabbits are rivals, NDSU is a five-time national champion and SDSU has huge expectations this season with the offensive trio of quarterback Taryn Christion, receiver Jake Wieneke and tight end Dallas Goedert.
Sell said the game is a sellout and a crowd of about 19,300 is expected. That would be about 3,500 more than SDSU’s biggest announced crowd this season, when 15,806 showed up to watch the Jackrabbits pound Drake in a non-conference game. The Jacks drew 12,218 for their season opener against Drake, 12,819 against Southern Illinois; and 14,347 against Northern Iowa.
Those figures are partially why Bison fans and compliant media are suspicious of SDSU’s ticket distribution. NDSU fans travel well and, if given the opportunity, would purchase thousands of tickets in Brookings. They weren’t given the opportunity because SDSU fans and supporters bought them all, Sell said.
“It’s a variety of folks who do that. They pay full price for the tickets and they use them to distribute to their employees. And that’s not just the NDSU game. We do that pretty frequently for most of our contests. We’ve been lucky here at SDSU with our donor base and corporate support,” Sell said. “Many of those groups have given us $10 million or more to help us build these facilities. So it’s a great opportunity for us to work with them to allow them to take care of their employees and it’s great relationship-building for us in town. … Their willingness to pay full price for those tickets is much appreciated. We’ve done that in the past. I wouldn’t say that number is super-large and certainly this game is a big one.”
NDSU ticket manager Josh Hemingway said the athletic department received 260 tickets from SDSU, the amount the Bison give when the Jackrabbits come to Fargo.
“We use those tickets to to cover our player pass list, coaches, guests and staff,” Hemingway said.
Some Bison fans may have received tickets from Jackrabbits fans, or they could’ve purchased them on the secondary market. The Web site StubHub was offering Bison-Jackrabbit tickets on Thursday afternoon ranging from $98 to $250 apiece. The site said 41 tickets remained on sale as of 5 p.m. So there might be more than 260 Bison fans inside the stadium.
The proof will be in the stadium for Jackrabbit fans Saturday. If they do, indeed, fill Dykhouse Stadium there will not be much about which to complain for Bison fans. But if there are hundreds or thousands of empty seats, the Bison conspiracy theorists will have a heyday.
But there is also this: SDSU can do whatever it wants with its tickets. If Sell and the athletic department want to sell them, they can. If they want to give them away to Jackrabbits fans, they can. If they want to burn them in a pile, they can. SDSU is under no obligation to make tickets available to opposing fans.
Corporations buying large blocs of tickets is not unusual. Nor is making opposing fans jump through hoops for tickets uncommon. A couple of years ago, if memory serves, the University of South Dakota made Bison fans buy a non-conference ticket they’d never use in order to buy a ticket to the NDSU game in Vermillion.
Sell is on record as saying there was no plot, that the Jackrabbits sold all the tickets at full price and that all the tickets sold because of high interest in the game. And he’s on record because two reporters from The Forum and 970 WDAY actually called him Thursday to ask him directly, giving him a chance to respond.