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Gonzaga Basketball

Sounds of silence: With no fans in the stands, teams take varying approaches to piping in crowd noise during games

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

The tailgaters, the ticket takers and the thousands of fans were absent from Martin Stadium on Saturday.

But when Matt Zollinger walked the grounds before the Oregon Ducks kicked off to the Washington State Cougars, at least one aspect of it all was familiar to a football gameday: the pregame music.

That, at least, was normal.

“I could feel the anticipation for kickoff,” Zollinger said. “It felt very natural.”

As the associate athletics director for marketing and fan experience, Zollinger is in charge of making the Cougars’ three scheduled home games feel like there are huge crowds of fans there, even if they aren’t.

Much has changed about their in-game presentation from last year, he said. The game script isn’t as complicated, and sponsorships shifted away from in-game features. Even some of their music choices were different on Saturday, given that their audience is limited to those on the field.

“The music is catered to the players. We would throw in some oldies for the fans, but the players don’t respond (to those),” Zollinger said. “The playlist is very different. (We determine) what’s gonna get the players excited in the third or fourth quarter, and pick that music.”

But some staples, like “Back Home,” stayed, he said.

The audio team also piped in crowd sounds, which remained a steady baseline of 75 decibels for most of the game, Zollinger said. Pac-12 rules allow them to boost it up to 90 decibels during big moments, he said, which they tried in Saturday’s game, such as after each of the Ducks’ three turnovers.

“There are some spots there where we probably missed opportunities to be a little bit louder,” he said. “For the Apple Cup (on Nov. 27) we’ll have that stuff buttoned up.”

For as much as Renard Bell loves having fans in the stands, the Cougars senior wide receiver said playing to cardboard cutouts wasn’t really so bad.

“You’re kind of able to lock in to your assignment. It’s literally just football at that point,” Bell said. “I wish we could have the fans back for sure, but not having the fans out there, you don’t notice it. … All you know is ‘compete.’ “

That said, it would have been nice to have fans screaming at the Oregon offense when the Ducks were holding onto a touchdown lead late in the game.

“The fans for sure come into play at key moments, at crucial moments, such as in the fourth quarter when we were down by a touchdown, and the defense needed a stop,” Bell said. “The fans could’ve come into play there.”

Other teams and programs around the region are still figuring out their plans as far as crowd noise, music and gameday atmosphere, in the event they aren’t allowed to host fans.

At this point the Spokane Chiefs hockey team has no plans to pipe in crowd noise at the Spokane Arena, but then the Western Hockey League hasn’t made a final decision – in consultation with health authorities – as to whether fans will be allowed.

Gonzaga piped in some background fan sound during its Kraziness at the Kennel scrimmage on Thursday, but no official plan has been finalized for games.

Zollinger expects that the approach at Washington State will evolve as well. There is no perfect substitute, though, for the natural ebb and flow of a crowd of more than 30,000 fans.

“What we found in concept (is) really simple,” he said, “but watching on a computer and pressing buttons, it doesn’t happen as quickly as we’d like it to.”

The players are adjusting to the reality, too, that this will be the norm for the rest of the 2020 season, no matter where or who they are playing.

“During key situations it would have been great to have the fans there, but at the same time, when you step in between those lines, it’s football,” said senior offensive lineman Liam Ryan. “You’re going against another dude who’s athletic and big, and you’re just trying to stop them from doing what they do best.

“We know no fans are gonna be here for any of the games, so we just gotta come back and execute next week.”