You’ll have to excuse the fan usually seated in Alico Arena section E, row 5, seat 13 at Florida Gulf Coast University basketball games if he doesn’t cheer the court action as loudly as in seasons past.
Larry Fountain of Bonita Springs just isn’t quite himself this year. The 14-year season ticketholder is a huge Eagles fan, but he goes into the stands for the 2020-21 campaign feeling a little stiff and real quiet. That’s because the Larry Fountain seated at this season’s games will be his cardboard likeness crafted as part of FGCU’s new Cutout Crew.
Welcome to college basketball in the COVID-19 era.
“I’m opting out of attending games in person this year, as I’m being cautious because of the virus,” said Fountain, a retired General Motors employee from Perry, Mich., who still wants to be part of the action, albeit from a safe distance. “I will miss the excitement of attending games this year, and look forward to FGCU’s 2021-22 season.”
Indeed, the usually rocking gymnasium complex will have a restricted vibe as FGCU’s men’s team opens its season Wednesday, Nov. 25 against Florida A&M with a night game in Alico Arena. The women’s team welcomes Florida Memorial that afternoon – two days before hosting the Gulf Coast Showcase (called the Beach Bubble Classic this year) with home games against nationally ranked teams Missouri State (No. 24) Friday, Nov. 27 and Arkansas (No. 14) Saturday, Nov. 28 before finishing up against Davidson late Sunday, Nov. 29. All games are streamed on FloHoops.com.
Denise Da Silveira, associate athletics director for marketing and sales, was hopeful that up to 1,300 masked and socially distant fans could be safely seated in the approximately 4,500-seat arena (30 percent capacity), depending on the state of coronavirus restrictions leading up to tipoff. First priority goes to longtime season ticketholders who still want to attend games in person, with subsequent reserved seats going to other passholders based on their years attending. Then come fans who purchase one of three “mini-pack” plans, which come in nine-, six- and four-game packages. (For all basketball ticket information, go to the online box office.)
“At that point, we’ll handle walk-up sales, preferring folks go online to purchase to assist our social-distancing expectations,” Da Silveira said. “We’re still reviewing everything. It’s been difficult. It’s always like this to some degree, but there are more moving parts this season because of COVID-19.”
Of course, the number of seats available to FGCU students also will be limited and likely distributed on an RSVP basis, but Da Silveira emphasized that students have “higher priority than walk-up sales.”
Meanwhile, Da Silveira is happy to report there are about 600 students signed up as Dirty Birds – the official student booster organization of FGCU Athletics – with upperclass retention higher than usual, an encouraging trend she attributes to a rebranding of the club highlighted by a new logo. “But our freshman numbers are off because orientation is usually our big recruitment time, and we didn’t have that personal connection this year,” Da Silveira said. “As basketball moves forward and the freshman class gets more involved, we think our Dirty Birds numbers will increase.”
Also affected by the pandemic is Azul’s Crew, a club for children in the Southwest Florida community that was introduced last year. “The most fun for the kids is interacting with Azul, and we can’t do that now because of social distancing,” Da Silveira said. But she noted that the “Nestivities” coloring program introduced for children on Twitter and Instagram has been successful, emphasizing timely topics such as wearing a mask and social distancing. “It’s a way of doing community outreach from a distance,” Da Silveira said.
Whatever the safety-first attendance situation dictates, one thing is certain: By mandate, there will be plenty of unfilled seats in Alico Arena. And that’s where the Cutout Crew comes in.
Invented by major-league baseball teams as a way of putting “faces” in empty stands for visual television appeal, the cutouts also have become popular in football, and now are ready for their proverbial closeup in basketball. In FGCU’s case, the Cutout Crew hopefully will make Alico Arena look fuller during ESPN+ telecasts.
“When we started seeing them in baseball games, the stadiums that adopted the cutouts made the game more engaging and visually appealing,” Da Silveira said. “One of our core missions at FGCU Athletics is to connect the student-athlete and the community, and it became very clear this was a way to have the community at our events with us.”
Cutout Crew members can purchase an almost-life-size, head-and-shoulders cardboard image of themselves — or get one in honor of a relative, friend, favorite superhero — for a $50 donation to the athletics program. Each cutout will be seated at both men’s and women’s home games. For detailed instructions on how to order a cutout, go to the Cutout Crew website.
Eagles Scholarship Society donors, who generously fund athletics grants for student-athletes, each get two complimentary cutouts. And Da Silveira said don’t be surprised if some notable FGCU Athletics celebrities pop up among the cutout crowd, such as faces from the famous “Dunk City” NCAA Sweet Sixteen men’s team of 2012-13.
The cutouts are put in place by inserting them in the space between the seat back and flip-up cushion. “This allows them to be stabilized without tying or taping them to the seats,” Da Silveira said. “It also makes it easier to move them.”
That latter point is important because the cutouts likely will be moved around the arena once the safely allotted number of seats are filled by live fans. “Once we see the camera angles ESPN+ is using, we can focus on the areas where the stands seem emptiest, and work from there,” Da Silveira said. She added that fan cutouts will be rotated to give everyone equal camera time in the most-commonly televised spots.
That means although it’s unlikely the cardboard image of Larry Fountain will always get to sit in his familiar and beloved section E, row 5, seat 13, Cutout Larry might actually end up with a better seat. And the best thing is that after the season, Fountain gets to keep Cutout Larry, which is crafted from a photo taken by his wife.
“I’ll most likely display it on the garage wall,” Fountain said.
Quite the souvenir from a college basketball season that, hopefully, will be unlike any other we’ll ever see again.