ERIC GREGORY/Lincoln Journal Star file photo
ERIC GREGORY/Lincoln Journal Star file photo

The world looked different 50 days ago. Bars and restaurants were preparing for the start of March Madness. Spring Training had just begun. There was no way to predict what would happen when COVID-19 took over. 

The sporting world came to a screeching halt at the feet of the coronavirus. The National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, NASCAR, Major League Baseball and all collegiate sports to be played this spring were postponed or canceled due to the effects of the virus. 

It doesn’t stop there. The looming threat of COVID-19 has set its sights on college football in the fall. College football has remained a light at the end of the tunnel for many in such uncertainty, but if there is anything to be learned, it is that all of that could change in the next 50 days.

According to CBS Sports, the College Football Playoff Management Committee said college football will not be played until students are allowed back onto campuses. It was also proposed that the season, if played, may be played without fans in attendance. 

Jenna Tederman, a Lincoln, Neb. native and third-year student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said she and her family have been Huskers fans for as long as she can remember. She expressed concern over the ambiguity surrounding the fall season. However, she also said that she and her family are looking forward to football season, even if games have to be played without fans in attendance.

“[My family and I] would like to be involved somehow, even if fans aren’t allowed inside the stadium,” Tederman said.

Amid the scare that COVID-19 may affect the fall sports season, college football fans were surveyed by UNLimited Sports staff to identify what could be done to keep them involved in the University’s football program, even if they aren’t allowed to attend games in person. The majority of this information was collected from fans at UNL. As the consecutive home game sellout streak may indicate, Huskers fans are extremely loyal. According to data collected by the Omaha World-Herald, Memorial Stadium has sold out for the last 375 games.

The suggestion of “game day boxes” came about frequently when surveying the fans. Game day boxes would be distributed on a subscription-based system. This method benefits both the fan, by giving them the means necessary to enjoy game day at home, and the university by bringing in revenue. 

The Nebraska football program is rich in tradition. According to Michael Huckstep of the Bleacher Report, the tradition of releasing red balloons into the sky after the first touchdown began in 1963. Game day boxes would feature items such as the red balloons, holographic stadium cups and Runza coupons: All things one would find at Memorial Stadium. 

Game day boxes could even include limited edition Huskers merchandise. 

Survey results identified merchandise as the best way to grab the attention of a crowd. Fans suggested giveaways, contests and online discounts as many major retailers are offering at this time to combat the decline in revenue. 

Fans indicated they would respond well to social media campaigns. Institutions can use social media giveaways to spread important messages or generate enthusiasm within the fanbase. Contests, such as a T-shirt design contest, can also be staged via social media. COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to host outlandish promotions encouraging fans to create a mascot costume out of unconventional materials, put a twist on the fight song or host the best a COVID-19 friendly tailgate. Winners of contests such as these are often rewarded with free merchandise.

The survey identified music as an important aspect of the game day atmosphere. Music can be used to build anticipation or in a way that promotes a brand style to the crowd. Not being able to attend games in person does not mean fans have to miss out on this aspect of the game. Using a music streaming service such as Spotify or Apple Music, the athletic department could release a playlist that includes all of the essential game day tunes, including the fight songs and so many more. 

For example, Wisconsin’s playlist would have to include “Jump Around” by House of Pain and Nebraska couldn’t leave out “Sirius” by the Alan Parsons Project, the song played during the iconic tunnel walk. These are songs that fans associate with the game day experience.

“I think [a playlist] would be a fun way to still get excited about the game or athletics in general,” Tederman said.

Tailgating is a storied tradition associated with college football throughout the nation. Strangers become friends among the camaraderie shared in a parking lot at home games on Saturday. Tailgating will most certainly look different this fall. 

If the NCAA chooses to play football games without fans, virtual tailgating will spark a trend. Fans will gather in driveways, abiding by the state’s social distancing guidelines, to cheer their favorite team onto a win. However, fans might prefer to do so outside of the stadium. 

The survey suggested that NCAA institutions provide spots outside of the stadium to be sold to tailgaters, although capacity would be decreased in order to abide by distancing regulations. Tailgating could be made safe by limiting the number of people per car, requiring participating fans to wear masks and stay within their allotted space. However, the fact that they could interact and celebrate with other fans may make the new version of the game day experience more enjoyable for everyone.

The decision will have an effect on all individuals, even the players. If the decision is made to play football this fall, it is likely they will be playing in front of empty stadiums. There is no doubt this will affect the intensity of play as well as the experience on the field. 

Another way to keep fans engaged throughout the game, one that would benefit the players as well, would be to put microphones throughout designated tailgate lots. An app could be provided for those tailgating at home to be involved. The sounds could be stitched together and streamed live inside the stadium to simulate a more realistic game day experience for those on the field. It also makes the fans feel more involved with the happenings inside the stadium. 

This project would have to be approved, or even overseen, by the NCAA. In any other situation, this would likely be denied. However, as it has been seen in the past 50 days, organizations have been willing to bend the rules in light of the pandemic. 

The sound streaming technology does not have to be special to one institution nor does it have to serve as an advantage to any one team. Technology like this may encourage fans whose voice would not have otherwise been heard inside the stadium to get involved, including fans of the opposing team.

The upcoming football season is sure to be different than others. Whether there are no fans, fewer fans, more restrictions inside the stadium or the season is canceled entirely, fans everywhere are in for something unlike they have ever experienced before. 

It would be a misconception to assume that fans will be less involved. In fact, the obstacles surrounding COVID-19 are forcing athletic departments to think outside the box in ways that will involve more fans than ever before.

Senior Sports Media and Communication major at the University of Nebraska