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Illinois football announced Friday that it will open the 2021 season at full capacity after a season without fans for Big Ten football games because of COVID-19 protocols.
The Illini also announced it will welcome capacity crowds at State Farm Center for basketball games after banning fans from regular-season games and playing in front of limited fans in the postseason last season.
Northern Illinois also will open facilities, including Huskie Stadium, to full crowds in the fall, the university announced Friday.
The news was released the same day the state moved into phase five of its reopening plan.
The Illini kick off their season against Nebraska in “Week Zero” on Aug. 28 at Memorial Stadium, making them the first football team to play potentially in front of a full house since the 2019 season. The stadium holds 60,670 fans.
“To have the chance for the opening kickoff of the college football to be here in Champaign, nobody else in the world of college football has that opportunity,” said Bret Bielema, who begins his first season as Illinois coach. “Just couldn’t be more excited about the opportunity for us as a football program and more importantly for our fans.”
Illinois last sold out a home game on Sept. 10, 2016, against North Carolina, welcoming Lovie Smith as its new coach. During a string of losing seasons, the Illini have struggled to build an enthusiastic home-field advantage.
Of Friday’s single-game sales, 70% were sold for the opener against Nebraska. The season ticket renewal rate is 87%, which is the highest since 2015 and the second-highest in a decade.
“To open at home against a Big Ten West opponent, that needs to mean something for us,” Bielema said. “The best way we can have an advantage here at Memorial Stadium is to have a packed house. I get people all the time, ‘Hey, Bret, what can we do?’ You know (what)? You can get in the stands and we can give you something when you’re sitting in the stands that you’re happy to see.”
Like other stadiums in sports, Illinois will provide an incentive for vaccinated fans. Vaccinated fans will have a chance to win a suite for a game. A promotion with details is expected to be announced next week, a spokesman said.
Last season, the Big Ten had among the strictest COVID-19 protocols, and Illinois players underwent daily testing. Bielema said some of those protocols have changed and players are quickly receiving COVID-19 vaccinations. All of his coaching staff has been vaccinated, he said.
Virus cases last season caused many players to be temporarily sidelined, and game cancellations in college football abounded, while some players opted out of the season altogether.
“Things in place have changed dramatically from January to where we are today,” Bielema said, noting there will be new protocols announced for fall camp. “It is a constant evolution.”
Bielema emphasized his hope for a smoother season as he begins his journey as Illinois.
“I couldn’t be more pumped up for where we’re at,” he said.