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Just checked the early weather forecast for Monday. As of right now (and it's early), the forecast calls for 64 and sunny. We really need good weather Monday night. Because this spring game is a really big deal. Yes, it's the first chance to see the Bret Bielema Illini, and it's your chance to cheer for the basketball team as they celebrate their season, but more than that, it's the first chance to attend an Illini sporting event on campus.
AND, it's the first chance for the band and cheerleaders to perform this season. Let's pause for a minute to talk about that. Perhaps you saw this video when the basketball team headed to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Tournament:
The @MarchingIllini basketball band and @IlliniCheer sending @IlliniMBB off in style, almost felt like normal as the #Illini left for what they hope is a month long stay in Indianapolis for the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. Thanks to @KevinLighty for the drone vid! pic.twitter.com/oBwVWVinq2— Bret Beherns (@WCIA3Bret) March 11, 2021
For some of the band members and cheerleaders, that's the only thing they've had to do all year. I mean, I know they've had class and whatnot, but the plan was to be marching in Memorial Stadium or cheering from the baseline at a basketball game and Covid took all of that away. Now, at least for one night, they can do their thing.
Let me just set this up for you. I'll try to paint the picture.
The tickets were distributed at 25% capacity. That doesn't mean 25% of full stadium capacity - I'm sure there were guidelines they needed to follow so that it's not too big of a crowd at the entrances and exits. But it will be a really solid crowd. The number (which I verified with the school last night): around 7,500 tickets were distributed.
And that will "fill" all of the stands. So when you walk into the stadium that night (or when you turn on BTN), you'll see something like this:
The east main stands will have the band (socially distanced, so they'll need a lot more room than just the front rows of the NEZ) and the cheerleaders. The rest of the east main stands were tickets distributed to the public, as was the east balcony, the horseshoe, the west main, and the west balcony. The "number" was 25%, so one out of every four seats in those sections will be filled. The student section will also be at 25%, so 1,250 students in the NEZ.
Looking at the tickets on the website yesterday, it's a diamond pattern. For example, in the east balcony, one row will have three sets of four tickets. The next row is empty. The row after that has several sets of two tickets spaced in the "voids" of the foursomes row. Then another empty row, followed by another set of foursomes. Make sense? Row with fours, empty row, row with twos, empty row, row with fours, empty row, row with twos... I can probably stop now because you get it.
So if you're watching from home, you'll see, for the most part, a "full" stadium. Meaning, all sections will be filled to 25%. There's no tailgating, so don't expect to see a bunch of ribs on a smoker in the opening shot, but as for the stadium, all of the visible stands will be "full".
The best part, of course, will be the sound. They'd better have the windows open in the pressbox because I need to hear that sound. An I-L-L, I-N-I cheer (one that stays together because it's led by the cheerleaders). The school song being played by the band. The cheers after a big pass play and the whistles from the officials and the "do we groan or do we cheer for this interception?" spring game fan confusion. I can't wait to hear all of it.
Now, if you've stumbled on this article and you're from Texas or something and you're saying "uh, didn't you have that during the fall and winter with football and basketball?", no, we did not have that during the fall and the winter. The Big Ten did not allow crowds at football or basketball games this fall. Yes, the majority of the country did allow socially distanced crowds (and bands, and cheerleaders), but that wasn't the case in Big Ten country.
Taking that further, this winter, most Big Ten campuses allowed "friends and family" tickets, but Illinois did not. I believe Illinois and Wisconsin were the only ones that did not allow a single person to be in the arena for basketball games. On senior night, Wisconsin allowed 12 people in the stands - two family members for each of their six seniors - but Illinois didn't even allow that. The only Illinois "fans" who have attended any games in the last 13 months have been the "friends and family" tickets for football games last fall.
This spring, the Big Ten announced that fans will be allowed at spring sporting events as long as the crowd size meets state and local guidelines. But Illinois has not allowed any crowds beyond families yet. So Monday night will be the first campus event fans can attend since March of 2020. Thinking about it, there's a decent chance that, of all the Power Five conferences, Illinois is the last school to allow fans at an event? Don't quote me on that. I'll need to do some research later today.
Please note that this is not a shot at the campus. The University of Illinois has led the way on Covid suppression (if that's the right way to say it). Just look at the two campus-wide two-week lockdowns at Michigan - one in October, one in January - and compare it to this dashboard. The day that Michigan went on their second campus-wide lockdown (you might have heard of it - their basketball team couldn't play any games?), the Illinois 7-day campus positivity rate was 0.31%. I attribute a lot of the "zero positive tests for the basketball team from August through the end of the season" to the near eradication of Covid on campus, so I'm fine with nearly every decision this administration has made. Up to and including "no fans at baseball games yet".
My point here is that given those facts, Monday is a really big day. Having just experienced the Rutgers game on the Friday night of the Big Ten Tournament - walking in to my 24th Illini game of the year and finding that this time, the concourse is overflowing with orange and blue - let me tell you, it's quite an emotional experience. I'm not embarrassed to say that I teared up a little bit. It had just been so long since the fanbase got to I-L-L together.
And that's what Monday night will be. A stadium "filled" as much as it can be filled. The band, the cheerleaders, the football, the I-L-L. Forget "I hope" - I DEMAND that the pressbox windows above my seat be open.
I can't wait to soak it all in.