Coronavirus response | Come on in: UI sports venues again open for business | Coronavirus


CHAMPAIGN — Memorial Stadium holds 60,670. For the first time since 2019, every seat will be available starting Aug. 28.

After a year of football in empty stadiums, fans are welcome to come back. The University of Illinois opens its season at noon Aug. 28 against Nebraska. It will be coach Bret Bielema’s Illini debut.

“To have the chance for the opening kickoff of college football to be here in Champaign, no one else in the entire world of college football has that opportunity,” Bielema said Friday afternoon. “I knew it was going to be something we want to capitalize and maximize.”

With the state of Illinois moving into Phase 5 of the Restore Illinois plan, sports venues are again open for full business.

It didn’t take long for Illinois to start selling seats. Single-game tickets for the 2021 season went on sale at noon Friday.

“I was told 70 percent of the tickets sold (Friday) were for the opener,” Bielema said. “Season tickets are the second-highest they have been in a decade, best in six years.”

Seating will be allowed at full capacity during the seven-game home season. Illinois hosts Nebraska, Texas-San Antonio, Maryland, Charlotte, Wisconsin, Rutgers and Northwestern.

“I couldn’t be more excited,” Bielema said. “I’ve said from Day 1, we have to represent our fan base.

“I can’t promise or guarantee where it’s going to go. I just know it’s going to be good. I’d love to have everybody there.”

There hasn’t been a sellout at Memorial Stadium since Sept. 10, 2016 against North Carolina. That was Lovie Smith’s second game as head coach.

Attendance never topped 50,000 for a game in 2019, the last time fans were in the stands. The largest crowd that season was 44,512 for Nebraska.

Bielema said there are plans “in the works” to enhance the Memorial Stadium experience.

“I always tell our players ‘Gamedays are about the game. They don’t come to watch coaches coach. They don’t come to watch refs ref. People come to watch players play,’” Bielema said. “The way we play the game will excite people. I think we’ll be a tough, smart, dependable team that is going to be able to put points on the board, but also keep points off the board.”

The opener won’t be Bielema’s first game at Memorial Stadium. He has been in the building as a player at Iowa and as a coach at Iowa and Wisconsin.

“I know coming in as a player, I remember hearing my coach talk about the atmosphere that was going to be here from the time our buses rolled through,” Bielema said. “I know how electric this place can be.”

The stadium is more vertical than most, giving the appearance to the players that fans are on top of them.

“I know what they used to say to me before I was the head coach, so hopefully that will improve,” Bielema said.

“To create a home-field advantage means you’ve got to have a crowd that supports you to do that. We’ve got to give faith to our fans to be here. And once they are in the crowd, we’ve got to give them a reason to be loud. That’s going to be my driving force.”

Bielema wants to engage the Illinois students, who have their own section at the north end of the stadium. Both Wisconsin and Iowa, his two other Big Ten stops, have vocal student sections.

“It’s huge,” Bielema said.

He wants the football program to connect with the large international student population.

“We’ll be involved in events to try to work with them hand in hand as they move into the University of Illinois,” Bielema said.

Football isn’t the only Illinois sport bringing back fans.

State Farm Center, home of the men’s and women’s basketball and wrestling teams, can be filled to 15,544.

The 2020-21 men’s basketball team played in a mostly empty arena during a turnaround season. Brad Underwood’s fourth team earned No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, halting an NCAA drought that went back to 2013.

Season-ticket renewals and new season tickets will go on sale later this summer.

Bielema looks forward to attending basketball games. He has built a good relationship with Underwood.

He hasn’t seen a game in State Farm Center when fans were in the stands. He has heard about it from athletic director Josh Whitman, though.

“Josh said, ‘It’s a shame this year was a COVID year, because this place would have been rocking,’” Bielema said.


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