Fan Cutouts Memorial Stadium

Fan cutouts are pictured during the game against Illinois at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Fans are the lifeline of any team. 

They support the team through good times and bad. Some pass down that support from generation to generation through their families. In most instances, the easiest way to create a new fan is to take someone to a game so they can experience the thrill of being around thousands of people cheering for a common outcome.

One of the greatest prides of Nebraska football’s fandom is the oft-cited fact that Memorial Stadium is the equivalent size of the state’s third largest city on gameday. Even with seasons of consecutive single digit wins,  Nebraska men’s basketball routinely has sold out games in Pinnacle Bank Arena.

The Bob Devaney Sports Center is normally packed with 8,000 fans to see whichever team Husker volleyball takes on. In 2018, that’s where  Maddie Luebe learned how serious Nebraska fans are about sports during her freshman year.

“The first time I ever went to a volleyball game it was versus Florida and I didn’t know when I was supposed to arrive, so I got there 45 minutes early and all the student section spots were filled, so I had to stand in the standing room,” Luebe said. “I was determined to never be late again.”

Now, Luebe is a junior and the volleyball director for The Iron N, a student-run organization that arranges student sections, chants and themes for Husker sporting events. The group was responsible for running the student sections Luebe saw back at the Florida game. 

Luebe said she has not done much as director of a fan section in 2021. She also has not attended the games.

“I still put on my Husker game day stuff like I would for any other day,” Luebe said. “Me and my friend Abby … we watch every game together, and we do the chants together like we would at the game.”

With empty games and The Iron N not hosting events, the group turned its sights to social media as another avenue to stay engaged.

“We had to take a different approach, and we had to sit down and think about what we can do to still create engagement with some fans,” Iron N internal vice president Mitch Kuhlman said. “We really made a strong effort to step up our social media game … and we really gave them the task of being creative.”

Once COVID-19 restrictions came into place, The Iron N emphasized creating a presence on social media. As Kuhlman described it, The Iron N’s social presence before the past year was inconsistent.

A new strategy within The Iron N was to regularly update fans on game times. This appeal kept the organization involved with the Nebraska sports they supported.

Social media ruled the 2020 fan experience as it was one way to create and maintain constant fan engagement. Within Memorial Stadium, there was also an approach more focused on social media via the use of HuskerVision.

The 2020 Red-White Spring Game was one notable Nebraska sporting events canceled last year. Instead of not working during the absence of the scrimmage, the Nebraska media team held a stream of the video game NCAA Football 14 between teams of virtual Husker football legends on April 18, 2020.

Another part of the broadcast included two critical Husker Sports Network radio broadcasters Greg Sharpe and Matt Davison.

“We couldn’t have done it without Greg Sharpe and Matt Davison because they made that show,” assistant athletic director for HuskerVision Kirk Hartman said. “It was nothing like what the spring game normally is, but it was really something for the fans.” 

The game’s age did not put anyone off, and HuskerVision found something to work with.

“That started out our virtual streaming and, from there, we really just started rolling with, ‘How do we get our student athletes … out to our fans,’” Hartman said.

Hartman has been with HuskerVision since 1994, and one of his responsibilities is to enhance gameday fan experience. Hartman’s game days span 14 hours, coming to Memorial Stadium five to six hours before a game and not leaving until six hours after the game.

Hartman’s responsibilities included overseeing all aspects of video in a Husker football game and to make sure everything went smooth before a game started. Afterward, Hartman helped coordinate taking down the equipment used during the game and creating the coaches show for Sunday.

The routine stayed the same, even in 2020, where he underwent daily COVID-19 testing before coming in to work since he had direct contact with either a player or coach daily. Unlike past seasons, Hartman and the rest of HuskerVision continued down the streaming route to make fans feel as engaged as possible.

Pregame, there were two HuskerVision crews instead of one. One crew helped out with the typical big screen action such as getting replays. Post-game, press conferences are live broadcasted on social media platforms like Twitter.

The other crew worked on Countdown Live, a Husker football pregame show started in 2019. Upgrades for the 2020 football season included hosting the show in a studio and beefing up the production quality.

However, attempts to keep fans engaged over social media didn’t go well for every Nebraska-associated account. Some events came off in poor taste due to the pandemic. 

In October, Pinnacle Bank Arena’s watch party for Nebraska’s season-opener against Ohio State was canceled the day after it was announced. All posts were met with heavy backlash on social media.

“I find myself struggling to feel as personally involved with our teams this year,” Kuhlman said. “I’ve been going to basketball and volleyball games for years, but when you’re stuck watching it on TV it doesn’t feel as personal as when you’re in the arena … It almost makes it harder to get as excited every day when there is a game day.”

A staple of the Memorial Stadium gameday scene is the sea of tailgates and televisions that dominate the stadium parking lot. Whether a game starts at 11 a.m. or 7 p.m., the parking lot is always packed hours in advance.

In 2019, an official former football player tailgate was launched by former Husker offensive linemen Mike “Red” Beran and Pat Fischer along with help from the school. The university helped choose a spot where former players can hang out before games and continue the tailgate tradition.

That was the first school-sponsored alumni tailgate for former football players.

“I saw a lot of former players that probably hadn’t seen each other in several years, and they would see each other and just bear hug,” former Husker walk-on Joe Mixan said. 

Mixan runs the Facebook page for the former Husker player tailgate and is also a photographer, which allows him to snap emotional shots of former players seeing each other for the first time in years or players from different eras meeting each other. This content makes up a majority of the Facebook page.

Attending every tailgate in 2019, Mixan said that about 30 minutes before each game started he would enter Memorial Stadium to shoot the upcoming game. A chance to reminisce with old teammates vanished in 2020; instead of seeing thousands of fans, the drive to Memorial resembled a typical work commute.

“This past season was a lot different,” Mixan said. “There was no one around, you just parked, and me and a group of photographers would ride down together and walk into the stadium.”

Mixan has spent more than 30 years as a photographer, devoting time to Nebraska Athletics before hopping to other opportunities. Right now, he works for the sports website The Athletic as a photographer.

For any Nebraska fan, the Memorial Stadium endzones always had an army of lenses behind them. In 2020, another Memorial Stadium fixture had to go as photographers could not be on the field.

The restriction took Mixan and his camera on an adventure around the stadium for each home game. All of Mixan’s shots came from the stands, allowing him to be unexpectedly interactive with the few people that were there.

“That’s the first time for me in 35 years that I wasn’t allowed to shoot on the field,” Mixan said. “Making my way around the stadium, it was certainly a more relaxed atmosphere, and I found myself talking to some of the parents of players during the game. That would never happen if I was down on the field.”

Despite Mixan’s interactions with families, players and whoever else was there, the inside of Memorial Stadium and other arenas all had the same empty feeling almost everywhere throughout the past year.

“The atmosphere wasn’t there, the band wasn’t in the stadium, the cheerleaders weren’t on the sidelines,” Hartman said. “It was a totally different look if you were in the stadium. It was a little sterile, but we tried to emulate as much as we could to create an environment, to enhance the atmosphere. But without the fans, it wasn’t there.”

The atmosphere at Memorial Stadium, as it was in athletic venues across the country over the past year, was nonexistent. Luebe noted the strangeness of attempting to rally a team from her couch, while athletes didn’t feel the roar of a crowd when they needed it most.

“It’s hard to see these teams and not be able to interact with those players,” Luebe said. “It’s so hard to watch these teams play in silence.”

The past year created challenges for fans and those working in the stadiums. In the end, the inevitable conclusion remains that sports without fans is different — and worse.

“I guess what we learned is that we really want our fans back,” Hartman said.

sports@dailynebraskan.com