ESPN had an idea: Get a live bison, hustle it through the back of the historic Fargo Theatre and have the 350-pound animal pop out the front door onto the set of “College GameDay.”
“You want to do what?” asked Emily Beck, the executive director of the 1920s-era movie theater. But in the end, Beck agreed to the plan — Fargo and North Dakota State University, in fact, rarely put the brakes on any proposal when ESPN’s “College GameDay” came to town twice in the past two years.
“We just asked ESPN, ‘What do you want from us?’ ” said Steven Sprague, the city’s auditor.
On both visits, the plans bounced from complicated to humorous, according to numerous interviews and records obtained by the Star Tribune. Like this year’s release of 5,000 balloons — ESPN envisioned them gently floating up from downtown — which went awry when gusty winds swept them to the north after they got just 10 feet off the ground.
When ESPN returned this year and again requested the bison — named “Corso,” after ESPN analyst Lee Corso — the sports cable giant was informed the animal had grown to 800 pounds, and bringing him through the theater was not feasible. Corso the buffalo ended up making his most recent “GameDay” entrance from a downtown trailer shortly before Lee Corso made his prediction.
As its makes its way each Saturday in the fall from college to college — the University of Minnesota has never been a “GameDay” host — ESPN’s signature pregame college football show is hard to define largely because it has morphed into part circus, part marketing and just part football.
Pop star Katy Perry, wearing a hot pink and black fuzzy jersey and telling the University of Oklahoma’s quarterback to give her a call, was a “GameDay” guest in October. This week’s event will be hosted by the University of Alabama, which meets Auburn in a game with national title ramifications.
On Sept. 13 of this year, roughly 9,000 people surrounded the Fargo “GameDay” set at the corner of Broadway and 3rd this year, doubling the crowd from a year ago. Police Lt. Joel Vettel said the city had 12 officers on duty starting at 4 in the morning for the telecast.
Vettel worked an 80-hour week preparing for the visit, and he drove a golf cart last year that delivered the “guest picker” to the set. “This is an event that is pretty monumental for Fargo,” he said.
When ESPN’s semitrailer trucks rolled into downtown during the week, they were met by a cheering crowd lining the street. Sam Ponder, an ESPN reporter, tweeted that it was the “first time I’ve ever seen [ESPN] College GameDay t-shirts being sold at the airport!” There were Chamber of Commerce gift bags for crew members. The first time ESPN came, 35 city, school and business leaders gathered in the city’s library to hear what ESPN needed. Fargo closed off key downtown streets for nearly three days this year — and in the end sent ESPN a bill for $4,664.75.
Troy Goergen, a senior associate athletic director at North Dakota State, the three-time defending Football Championship Subdivision champion, remembered the day ESPN first announced on live TV its plan to come to Fargo.
“My wife’s yelling out the back door,” he said. “My phone just blew up.”
Fun — and big business
The game this year, a 58-0 win over Incarnate Word, was almost an afterthought, and the ESPN crew was packed up and gone almost before it was over.
While many have hailed the rare publicity bump that Fargo received, the events left a few wondering how far is too far.
“Football tends to overshadow everything else. [That’s] not unique to Fargo,” said Greg Danz, who owns a downtown bookstore and gift shop. He said he had to remind himself that, as streets were closed and ESPN set up its stage near his front door, “GameDay” was “definitely a positive for Fargo” in the long run. But, he added, “it’s way out of whack to me — sports, in general.”
The city and the school welcomed a company whose reach and financial muscle is significant. A new study by A.T. Kearney, a global management consulting firm, said that ESPN accounts for roughly half the revenue of Disney, its parent company. The consulting firm, which advises clients on marketing strategies, said the global market this year for sports events — counting ticket sales, media rights and sponsorships — will be worth nearly $80 billion and is growing 7 percent annually.
“The thing that ESPN does better really than anybody in sports,” said Greg Portell, a partner at the New York-based firm, “[is] they really do create narratives and events [like ‘GameDay’] around the properties they broadcast.”
For ESPN, Fargo was a good fit. “Downtown was a no-brainer — the perfect setting, like a movie set,” said Lee Fitting, an ESPN senior coordinating producer. “Fargo definitely rolled out the red carpets.”
A year ago, the decision to host “GameDay” downtown — more than a mile away from NDSU’s stadium — led to a “bit of an outcry,” said NDSU’s Goergen. To help bridge the distance, the network helped pay for shuttle buses to bring fans arriving early for the game to the “GameDay” set.
ESPN also sent the school a five-page list of requirements that included having school officials help ESPN security remove signs that “ambush our sponsors.” Those sponsors included Home Depot, which had a 45-foot long bus that needed to be parked as close as possible to the set. Cheez-It, the snack cracker company, had a tent for its “consumer activation space,” Coke Zero had portable bleachers where 50 people could sit in “Section Zero,” and AT&T needed a 10- by 20-foot “footprint.”
ESPN in addition detailed its “College GameDay Apparel Program,” which it told local officials “brings to life the pageantry, tradition and passion of ‘College GameDay.’ ”
When the last of ESPN’s trucks motored out of town, life returned to normal and final chapters were written. Beck said “GameDay” hurt the theater’s regular business, but he decided not to stand in the way. “I don’t want to rain on that parade,” she said. ESPN paid $2,000 to the zoo this year.
In the end, Mike Hahn, president of the 170-member Downtown Community Partnership, said it was all worth it: “From the exposure standpoint, [this] is the pinnacle.”