South Dakota State football rides wave of national title momentum as interest, attention reach all-time highs

Aug. 25—BROOKINGS — Business is booming within the South Dakota State University athletic department.

In January, the SDSU football program won its first national championship, reaching the pinnacle following a steady rise to the top. In the wake of that triumph, the Jackrabbits and the university are riding a wave of success.

As the football program is revving up for a title defense, South Dakota State University and the athletic department are reaping the short-term benefits while pursuing ways to sustain the success and momentum created by winning a championship.

Season-ticket sales are up by at least 20% this season, SDSU Athletic Director Justin Sell said, bringing the total to more than 6,500 season tickets, and single-game tickets also have high demand. The Jackrabbits' marquee non-conference game against Montana State on Sept. 9 is a sellout — just the third in stadium history and easily the furthest in advance the stadium has sold out in SDSU history.

"We anticipate selling out quite a few games this fall, so that's a neat place to be," Sell said. "Season tickets are up between 20 and 25%, which is a huge jump for us, and then we did some single-game sales like we do every year and we sold three or four times the number we've ever sold as a record-high on that first day."

In addition to season ticket sales, merchandise sales and fundraising efforts are at all-time highs. Athletics and university websites are experiencing increased traffic, and corporate sponsorship values are rising. Ideally, the elevated level of interest drives up application and enrollment numbers, Sell said.

In recent seasons, SDSU football generated about $4 million in revenue from football. The most recent full-season data from 2021 shows SDSU brought in $3.99 million, which includes funds from ticket sales, premium seating leases, sponsorships and concessions.

"For us in the athletic department, you kind of know what opportunities you're missing when you don't when you're not able to win it," Sell said. "Then, all of a sudden, you win it, and all of these things that you dreamed about, that you plan for, that you thought could be possible, start happening."

As the Jackrabbits prepare to open their national championship defense at home on Thursday, Aug. 31, all signs point toward a new high-water mark for the program in terms of support.

"We've had a good sense of if we're able to do this, we're going to grow," Sell explained. "From a growth perspective, the past six or seven months have really exceeded our expectations."

SDSU's football ascent in the FCS took time. As Sell tells it, the athletic department spent years planning for and developing the capacity to win a football national championship, and now, the athletic department and the university as a whole are reaping a major reward.

"What was interesting to me, though, is that has carried over," Sell said. "It wasn't just a 30-day period or a three-month period; it's carrying over to this fall. ... And so if you think about building off of that, the interest is there."

According to Senior Associate AD for Development Nathan Christensen, 1,319 new season tickets were sold ahead of the 2023 season, and all premium areas at Dykhouse Stadium — club, loge and suite levels — are sold out for the first time. The stadium's premium seat leases have generated about $2 million in revenue each season since 2016, according to South Dakota Board of Regents data.

Season tickets in general seating areas range from $99-$215, with a required donation to the Jackrabbit Club ranging from $50-$250 per seat, depending on the location. For context, the 6,500 season tickets sold for this season is nearly triple what SDSU had sold in 2010, when the Jacks were coming off their first Division I playoff appearance, selling a then-record 2,200 season tickets at the former Coughlin-Alumni Stadium.

On Sept. 9, No. 1-ranked SDSU hosts No. 3 Montana State in a rematch of an FCS semifinal pairing from each of the past two seasons. Within four days of single-game tickets going on sale on Aug. 1, the contest was sold out. Dykhouse Stadium, with a capacity of 19,340 people, has experienced two sell-out crowds since it opened in the fall of 2016. SDSU averaged 15,561 fans per game in 2022 in six regular-season home contests, which set a school attendance record.

SDSU hosts rival North Dakota State, the preseason No. 2-ranked team in the FCS, on Nov. 4. As of Aug. 24, less than a dozen sections of the stadium have tickets still available for purchase. Sell and Christensen are both hopeful more of the four remaining home games also approach selling out. Healthy turnout is also expected for a neutral site game against Drake at Target Field in Minneapolis, home of the Minnesota Twins.

In other efforts, the Jackrabbit Club, a fund used to offset part of an annual scholarship bill that hovers around $4.3 million, has increased its value from $1.85 million to $2.3 million over the past year. The annual Jackrabbit Athletic Scholarship Auction in April, which featured plenty of national championship memorabilia, generated $2.1 million in 2023, up from a figure just shy of $1.6 million the year before.

Jackrabbit Sports Properties, the marketing branch of the SDSU athletic department, is likely to see a record year for corporate sponsorships.

"(Winning a national championship) has certainly opened up doors to conversations from a development side," Christensen said. "It's a perfect time for us because people are excited about this place and people want to hear from us."

Much of the Jackrabbits' football revenue goes toward paying the university's debt service on Dykhouse Stadium, the seven-year-old stadium that is among the best in the FCS. SDSU's annual debt service toward the stadium is roughly $2.5 million, according to annual information reported to the South Dakota Board of Regents.

Football is far from the only program under the SDSU athletics umbrella to see national success.

The women's basketball program is an NCAA Tournament regular and has grown accustomed to winning games in the national tournament in addition to winning the 2022 Women's National Invitation Tournament championship. Other programs such as men's basketball, women's soccer and softball are also regular challengers for NCAA Tournament bids, while wrestling continues to produce NCAA qualifiers and men's cross country dominates the Summit League. That's not to mention the several other programs that are on the rise.

But with the football program's breakthrough, it's provided a boost across the athletic department, according to Sell.

"The FCS playoffs are phenomenal; there's great exposure. There's national TV and the chance to win a true national championship with a team," Sell said. "Those impacts are honestly almost immeasurable. I think when you have success ... from a recruiting perspective and from a branding perspective, it helps every program that we have in our athletic department."

But as the influx of attention has poured in, Sell maintains his mindset and the philosophy of the entire athletic department has not changed much, if at all. Now in his 15th year in his current post, Sell said SDSU's athletic department is doing what it can to capitalize on the short-term successes but remains committed to the long-term mission and sustaining a high level of growth and achievement across all sports.

"I think we have just a really good sense of who we are, what we do and what we value. And we're going to double down to stick with that," Sell offered. "I think our biggest challenge is continuing to be patient. There's a lot of stuff out there that we can't control, but we can control what we're trying to accomplish and the input that needs to be there to create those experiences.

"We're trying to keep those things in perspective and not try to force things when we really don't need to," he continued. "We just need to be really good at what we do every single day and the results will take care of themselves."