Illinois Still Planning On Having Fans In Stands For 2020 Home Football Games

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- University of Illinois officials reiterated the primary plan is for some football fans to be in the Memorial Stadium stands for the upcoming 2020 season.

Unless new coronavirus pandemic protocols are developed by the Big Ten Conference and Illinois athletics, the university officials are still operating under the premise that Illini home football games at Memorial Stadium will have as much as 20 percent fans capacity.

“State of Illinois Restore Illinois Phase 4 guidelines allow for attendance up to 20 percent of stadium capacity,” Illinois spokesperson Kent Brown said in a media release. "Season tickets for 2020 have sold out, however, a limited number of single-game tickets will be available exclusively to ‘I FUND’ members on August 17 starting at 1 pm CST. Remaining tickets would be available to the general public on August 18 at 1 pm CST. These single-game tickets will be sold online only through FightingIllini.com.”

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This was a PowerPoint slide used on July 16 by Illinois Athletics Director Josh Whitman in an online public presentation to discuss the return of fall sports at the university. The graphic on the above right represents Section 201, Rows 1-33 of Memorial Stadium with the green dots representing fans in the stands in 2020 while observing social distancing. 

The Big Ten released its league-only schedule for the 2020 slate Wednesday morning and in doing so, Illinois fans got an opportunity to look at a list of potential opponents for a football season still in some peril due to the current coronavirus pandemic. Illinois is scheduled to host the first Big Ten football game of the 2020 season when Illinois plays defending league champion Ohio State on Sept. 3 in a Thursday night opener expected to be on either a national television network (ESPN or Fox Sports) or Big Ten Network.

The plans for fan seating in Champaign for football games are still being worked out by Illinois athletics officials but last month during “a public presentation” online, athletics director Josh Whitman presented a model of what fans seated in social distancing guidelines could look like in 2020. Twenty percent capacity at Memorial Stadium in Champaign is a maximum fan allotment of 12,134.

The 20 percent plan is based on the staged reopening set by Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker’s administration in late June. Part of those guidelines included a line titled “outdoor seated spectator events”, which had Illinois athletics officials first thinking fans at football games inside Memorial Stadium was possible.

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This ‘Phase 4’ part of Pritzker’s state guidelines also increases the size of small gatherings that are allowed from 10 people to a maximum of 50 people. Pritzker said in June he expected all counties in Illinois to be in ‘Phase 4’ of this reopening plan by the end of that month.

According to Brown, Illinois training camp is tentatively set to begin tomorrow but any further schedule news is obviously tenuous due to several Big Ten schools being forced to pause offseason voluntary workouts due to COVID-19 positive tests and outbreaks including the recent news Monday that Northwestern halted workouts after one positive test in its program.

The Illinois athletics department released its positive cases on Monday afternoon since athletes returned to the Champaign-Urbana campus for voluntary workouts.

As of July 30, Illinois had 164 student-athletes who had returned to campus to participate in voluntary team activities.

The media release further emphasized the COVID-19 protocols put in place by school officials that included all athletes being tested at least weekly, with a total of more than 1,200 tests already being administered. According to the release, the testing protocol has reportedly returned 23 positive results with all but three of those cases with the remaining athletes having already recovered and returned to the activity of the workouts. According to Brown in the release, “only four of the positive tests were remotely symptomatic” and no Illinois athlete has required a hospitalization after testing positive for COVID-19.

While fans got an opportunity to look at a list of potential opponents for a football season, the league officials are still publicly recognizing that starting and finishing this football season is still in a bit of peril due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said Wednesday on Big Ten Network “it would be purely speculation at this point for me to sit here and say ‘this is what percent we will have a season’”.

“While the conference remains hopeful for a September 2020 start in all fall sports, issuing a schedule does not guarantee that competition will occur,” the Big Ten Conference said in a media statement. “While our strategy is to continue planning for all fall sports, if the virus continues to spread among our students despite our many preventive measures, including testing and quarantine protocols, we are also prepared to delay or cancel competition pursuant to local and state public health orders or the recommendation of our medical experts.”

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