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Broadcasting The Future On National Signing Day

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Photos by Hillary Ehlen

North Dakota and Midco Sports Network’s partnership has given the Fighting Hawks resources to enhance their program. With every athletic department yearning for more airtime, North Dakota can look to its own backyard to satisfy the craving of its fan base.

The University of North Dakota is in rare TV territory when it comes to Signing Day. The Fighting Hawks are one of two teams in the Big Sky conference that has a one-hour “Signing Day Special” broadcast exclusively committed to its football team. What began last spring at the Midco Sports Network’s studio has quickly become a hit.

Bubba Schweigert and his staff were back again in December to announce to the FCS landscape who was signing their national letters of intent to join the Fighting Hawks.

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Head coach Bubba Schweigert (far left) decompresses with a few of his assistants inside the “war room” where they have been receiving their recruits’ National Letters of Intent to play at North Dakota.
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It’s a hectic morning at the studio located a few parking spaces northeast of the Ralph Engelstad Arena. Producer Darren Lien rolls into the office hours before daylight to make sure the coffee is brewing and bagels and doughnuts are ready for coaches when they arrive. It’s the first early signing period in college football and soon Fighting Hawks coaches, who have spent endless hours on the road recruiting, are about to secure the fruits of their labor.

The coaches arrive before the central standard time signing window opens at 8 a.m. with laptops and cell phones in hand, anticipating the day’s signing in their heads, hoping there isn’t a late surprise. Most of the recruits have already given verbal agreements to Schweigert and his staff, but with 17 and 18-year-old kids, nothing is official until the ink meets paper.

Alex Heinert, the MidcoSN host you see and hear broadcasting Fighting Hawks athletics events is bouncing around the office. It’s less than an hour to broadcast and the early signing period window has been open for more than two hours.

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Producer Darren Lien (left) and host Alex Heinert (right) review graphics 15 minutes before air-time.

Heinert is going through the graphics of each of the high school athletes expected to sign, and checking off the ones they’re cleared to announce on the show. North Dakota Athletics compliance director Kara Helmig is by his side. He checks out his colleague Jody Norstedt’s North Dakota High School Recruits segment where he’ll mention three athletes, but only two will sign with the Fighting Hawks today. Heinert doesn’t mention the player and neither does Schweigert when he gets in front of the camera. It would be a recruiting violation to publicly mention the recruit by name.

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Alex Heinert chats with North Dakota’s Associate Athletics Director and Compliance Kara Helmig to ensure MidcoSN isn’t breaking any NCAA rules before the show.

It’s moments before show time and Heinert is behind his desk. The man behind the main camera asks Heinert to remove his water bottle from his desk. Schweigert is standing just behind the cameraman waiting in the shadows before his appearance in the second segment. “He’s like Nick Saban with his Coke bottle,” quips the head coach.

The studio chuckles as Schweigert continues to loosen up the show’s host.

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“I like the Kelly green tie today, Alex. You’re still pandering for that scholarship for the new baby,” jokes the coach. Heinert, who became a new father in October, is smiling before he and the Fighting Hawks logo behind him appears on televisions across the Dakotas.

Soon, Schweigert will sit behind the desk to talk about the future of his football team to the thousands of Fighting Hawks fans sitting in their living rooms. North Dakota is the only team in the Dakotas who will get this one-hour to present their program’s lifeblood, recruiting, to viewers at home.

“This is huge for us,” Schweigert says in the MidcoSN hallways after his 10-minute live interview with Heinert. “You’re always looking for exposure for your football program and we want to get a good, positive message out about our team and what we’re doing. There are areas that we’re recruiting and we feel like this is a big plus for us to do a live Signing Day program two years in a row. There aren’t too many programs in the country who get this.”

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Wide receivers coach and former North Dakota quarterback Danny Freund answers Twitter questions from Fighting Hawks fans while special teams coordinator and tight ends coach Shawn Kostich talks about an incoming signee.

The Signing Day Special featured 17 of the 21 early commitments Schweigert and his staff were able to secure on that Wednesday morning.

“I think people love this type of thing,” Heinert said after sitting behind a desk for an hour talking about North Dakota’s recruiting class. “People love looking ahead at the potential of what’s to come. … They are outstanding high school players and maybe the majority of them will pan or not that many. But today, they’re all stars.”

The logistics of creating the show is what makes it work for both the University of North Dakota and MidcoSN. The coaches’ offices are a short drive away from the studio. North Dakota can receive recruits paperwork in a large meeting room, communicate easily with the MidcoSN’s production staff and then, step in front of the camera to make the magic happen.

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This is a peek inside the control room for the broadcast. Not pictured is Jack, who makes sure the teleprompter is running at the right pace, Rod (left) is making sure the audio levels are even, Darren (middle) is making sure the right content is being broadcasted and, to his right, sits Mike, the technical director who is showing what viewers are seeing on their screen.

The show also provides one centralized area for fans to get information. There’s no fishing through Twitter feeds and recruiting websites to find who North Dakota has signed. Fans can sit in front of the television and watch what they need to see.

“The response has been good,” show producer Lien said. “People seem to enjoy being able to see all the guys in one central spot to have it all in one show and to do it that way.”

MidcoSN and North Dakota just completed the first of a five-year deal to broadcast football games on the network. With a long-term partnership signed with the areas leading sports broadcast company, the Fighting Hawks will continue its presence and growth in the state of North Dakota.

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