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UND committee wants football experience to be best in the FCS

University of North Dakota fans kick up the noise during last season's NCAA FCS quarterfinal game. Forum News Service file photo.

GRAND FORKS — In April 2016, Peter Stenehjem—like many University of North Dakota hockey fans—traveled to Tampa, Fla., to watch the NCAA Men's Hockey National Championship.

He joined a throng of UND fans enjoying Ferg's Live, an indoor-outdoor bar outside Amalie Arena.

Ferg's Live, home to UND's pregame and postgame festivities, reported record sales after the Frozen Four.

It's a memory Stenehjem draws from as he enters into his new role as co-chair of a UND Football Game Day Experience Committee, charged with ramping up the Alerus Center atmosphere.

"It was an awesome atmosphere," Stenehjem said of Tampa. "They had large video screens and an area to congregate. It got everyone jacked up leading up to the game. I want a Ferg's Live."

The football committee features more than 30 members, including head football coach Bubba Schweigert, Minnesota Twins President Dave St. Peter and Ralph Engelstad Arena General Manager Jody Hodgson.

Stenehjem and Mike Mannausau co-chair the committee. Stenehjem is a UND alum and president of First International Bank & Trust, while Mannausau is a former UND football player and coach and now the executive director of the UND Champions Club.

"We view this as a three-year effort to make the game day experience at UND the best in the FCS," UND President Mark Kennedy said. "It's, in my mind, 20, 30, 40 different things that we do that can make it even more fun to be at the Alerus watching football and tailgating. We want to bring in a wide cross-section of views on that and let the committee vet them among the group."

Stenehjem said it was a no-brainer to accept a spot on the committee. The 32-year-old Watford City, N.D., native went to UND from 2003-07, lived with football players and headed the Sioux Crew, the former title of the school's student fan group.

"I remember going to games when I was in college, and I've gone to some games since then and it hasn't had the same excitement," Stenehjem said. "Being a part of that change is something I wanted to help out with."

The Alerus, which came under new management earlier this month, already has begun some changes for the 2017 season. The Alerus has implemented new lighting, a new sound system and new Wi-Fi connections.

The committee, which met once in June and once in July, has been broken into three categories: Facility, Tailgating and In Game Entertainment.

The first meeting consisted of a walkthrough of the Alerus Center.

"There's a receptivity to work with us," Kennedy said of the city-owned venue. "I'm moving into that relationship hopeful because there's a symbiotic relationship. What's better for the Alerus is better for us. What's better for us is better for the Alerus."

Kennedy, however, did acknowledge "a natural pull and tug to be cognisant of," referencing the separate branding interests of UND and the Alerus.

The committee's next meeting will be in mid-August, followed by two meetings in October and one in December.

Examples of the committee's focus include increased visibility of UND football history in the Alerus concourse, naming the tailgate area and expanding the availability of merchandise and concessions.

"The group has great energy and everyone has different experiences," Stenehjem said. "There have been a lot of ideas flowing the first two meetings. We're going to try to do as much as we can for the first game, but realize it's a three-year commitment. We'll do more stuff next year and hopefully get the whole wish list in Year 3. We're taking the philosophy that we'll put together our big goal and then go find the money."

Some of the changes can happen immediately, Kennedy said. Others are considered with UND's timeline of joining the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2020.

How these changes are paid for or how much money is available isn't clear yet, but Kennedy pointed out some of the changes come with little to no price tag.

The changes that do require a financial backing can be supported a few different ways, Kennedy said.

He broke down potential financial sources in three areas: The Alerus Center could foot the bill for some changes, UND could have money to reinvest with an increase in football season ticket sales and sponsorship opportunities could exist for businesses to attach a name to the experience.

"All of those will be decided case by case," Kennedy said.

As of July 20, UND has sold 842 new football season tickets, the most since the school started to track the statistic in 2012. A year ago, UND sold 334 new season tickets.

UND opens the 2017 season at Utah on Aug. 31. The Fighting Hawks' first home game will be the Potato Bowl against Missouri State on Sept. 9.

UND, entering the fourth year of Schweigert's rebuilding project, has been named the Big Sky Conference preseason favorite—a year after finishing 9-3 and qualifying for the program's first FCS tournament.

"We have a team that is competitive nationally, we have a great facility and we have a phenomenal band," Kennedy said. "We have the ingredients to make this a football powerhouse, but we're all going to need to contribute our energies to get there."

Home UND football dates

Sept. 9—Missouri State, 4 p.m.

Sept. 23—Montana State, 2:30 p.m.

Oct. 7—Northern Colorado, 2:30 p.m.

Oct. 21—Sacramento State, 12:30 p.m.

Nov. 11—Eastern Washington, 1 p.m.

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