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ESPN3 only broadcaster of Bison game Saturday

FARGO - Bison football fans ready to throw the red challenge flag over ESPN's decision not to carry Saturday's playoff game on TV may want to stuff it back into their pocket.

The network says this is one call that won't be reversed.

"We have received feedback and comments, but the game will remain as an exclusive to ESPN3," network spokeswoman Kristie Chong Adler told The Forum in an email Thursday.

ESPN3 is the network's Internet video streaming service, available only by subscription.

If your Internet provider doesn't have a contract with ESPN3, you can't stream Saturday's game between North Dakota State and Lehigh University on your computer or mobile device.

CableOne doesn't have a contract with ESPN3; Midcontinent Communications and Verizon do.

Cable and satellite TV providers were able to offer last Saturday's game through ESPN's GamePlan pay-per-view service. But that service concluded for the season last week and won't be available again until next season, "which is why the games are not available on GamePlan," Chong Adler stated.

ESPN's decision not to air the game via cable or satellite has Bison fans up in arms, even prompting one Fargo lawmaker to ask North Dakota's attorney general for help.

Staffers at the NDSU Alumni Association emailed their contacts who take part in Bison "watch parties" across the country, urging them to call ESPN and ask that the game be broadcast on GamePlan. By Thursday afternoon, at least 175 people confirmed they had called the network, said Nonda Mack, administrative assistant.

"We're getting a lot of calls from a lot of people that are disappointed," she said.

Much of the disappointment seems to stem from the mistaken impression Bison fans had that this Saturday's game, like last Saturday's, would be broadcast on GamePlan.

In fact, CableOne, Fargo's lone cable service provider, offered a two-weekend GamePlan package for $75. The company said subscribers would be able to watch all eight Football Championship Subdivision playoff games last weekend and all four quarterfinal FCS games this weekend.

About 50 people bought the package, CableOne General Manager Scott Geston said.

Geston said the GamePlan schedule initially showed all eight FCS games on Dec. 3 and slots for two FCS games on the afternoon of Dec. 10.

"And that was all fine until late Monday when it changed" and ESPN replaced Saturday's FCS games with Division III playoff games, he said.

However, ESPN's Chong Adler said the NDSU-Lehigh game "was never removed from GamePlan.

"It was always planned as an exclusive on ESPN3," she stated in the email.

Geston said CableOne offered the two-weekend package because it wasn't allowed to offer a single-weekend package. He acknowledged ESPN never told him that GamePlan would show all four FCS games this weekend.

"We really didn't talk to anybody other than authorizing the (GamePlan) service," he said.

Asked if there's a chance of a refund for people who paid for what they believed were two weekends of Bison football, Geston said, "Good question. I'm not sure. I'd have to check with ESPN and see if they'd allow us to get a waiver."

Geston said CableOne doesn't have a contract with ESPN3 because it would require passing on video content fees to Internet subscribers whether or not they watched ESPN3.

"We want to keep content fees, especially sports content fees, off of our Internet platform," he said.

Also, Geston and others said the picture and sound quality of streamed video on ESPN3 is poorer than cable video.

"I have to believe that they're just trying to drive that (ESPN3) service, subscription rate, by doing this," Geston said.

State Sen. Tim Flakoll, D-Fargo, an NDSU alumnus, said he asked the attorney general's office to investigate the matter to address the grievances of his constituents.

"Essentially, they felt they were subject to bait-and-switch when they bought packages," he said.

Liz Brocker, spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, said she had no information to release on the matter.

Flakoll said the office's options are limited because the Federal Communications Commission regulates programming.

It's not the first time this postseason politicians have taken aim at ESPN's programming.

When ESPN revealed plans to air the majority of FCS first- and second-round playoff games on ESPN3, Montana's congressional delegation urged the network to reconsider. Fans of the Montana State Bobcats and University of Montana Grizzlies bombarded ESPN with calls and emails, and more than 24,000 people joined the Facebook page "Petition to have ESPN lift blackouts of FCS playoff games," according to published reports.

The network obliged, announcing in late November it would carry all eight second-round games on GamePlan for a suggested retail price of $24.95.

Win or lose, Flakoll said, it's worth a try.

"This isn't just about Saturday's game," he said. "This is about making a statement for Saturday's game and future games."

General admission tickets for Saturday's game were still available Thursday afternoon.