How they kept the Crazie in Cameron

With ideas that approximated an in-game atmosphere without a crowd

It was going to be a strange season anyhow. A roster full of freshman talent that wasn’t instantly finding its way; some surprising early losses; and the sudden midseason decision by freshman Jalen Johnson to opt out of the remainder of his Duke basketball career and prepare for the NBA draft.

At least there’s that one constant: Cameron Indoor Stadium. Except: Is that a constant? How do you keep it Cameron without the Crazies? How do you retain one of the greatest home-court advantages in all of sports when it’s still a court, but “home” has lost a lot of its meaning and “advantage” is hard to even fathom? When the players run onto the court, the public-address announcer calls out, “Here comes Duke!” and the people ecstatically cheering are all at home—away?

It’s even harder than you think, says Meagan Arce, Duke director of sports marketing.

For one thing, crowd noise. That’s not hard, right? You choose some recorded crowd noise that works for you, you pump it in, and there you go. Except, no: “The static noise that plays literally the entire game,” Arce says, “is a track that actually the ACC gave us, so all the schools are using the same one.”

So the (virtual) crowd at Clemson or at Florida State sounds the same as the crowd at Cameron or Carolina. That hardly seems right.

It certainly didn’t seem right to Arce, who helps create the in-house atmosphere at Cameron. In charge of things like music and the PA announcer, Arce and her colleagues are like Rumpelstiltskin, trying to spin silence into craziness. “This year my whole focus is about the in-game atmosphere and trying to make it as normal as possible for our players.”

The players. Which makes sense. During most seasons, the focus is on the fans: entertaining them, keeping their energy up. But this year the fans are at home, so the focus is on the players themselves. “So they still feel like they have a competitive advantage, and they still get that quintessential feeling they would get on game day if there were a full house.”

But before you even get to excitement, you have to start with safety. There, Mikaela Ryan, game operations manager, has been at work since the full lockdown last year. She watched the NBA bubble and other pro bubbles to see what worked, and she got busy. The chairs for the players, for example, had to be three feet apart and organized in several rows. She had that organized, and then the ACC told her the chairs needed to be six feet apart, so that took another design cycle. Since players needed to keep water bottles, towels, and warmups apart, each player needs his own apparatus, which stands behind each chair and was designed based on a plant stand Ryan’s colleague Debbie Savarino ’93 saw in a catalogue. “I showed it to our facilities person, who showed it to our contractor, and he made these hydration stands. We get e-mails about it from all over the country; even high schools ask about it. People think they’re these crazy things we’ve bought, but it was really just a local contractor who does things for us.”

Everything is like that. The scorer’s table needed to be separated from the players, so it went behind plexiglass shields, with two levels of scorers inside so they could remain separate. They call that the penalty box, and it’s a great solution. But every solution creates its own problems—in this case how officials, coaches, and scorers make themselves heard. So next came an intercom system, with buttons, “and we set up speakers on the first and second row of scorer’s tables and then a few upstairs, where, like, PA and marketing people are,” Ryan says.

Television cameras have to be far enough from players to be safe but still have to find angles that tell the game story, though that’s actually one place where COVID makes things easier. “With no fans, it obviously gives us a lot of flexibility in terms of what we can do with those cameras.”

And as for making it seem like there is a crowd, the cardboard cutouts you see all over the country weren’t going to be good enough for Cameron. Instead, if you watch a game at Cameron on TV you’ll see vast, eight-by-twenty-four-foot frames with scrims on them covering the Crazies bleachers, three levels deep. “Those steel frames are wrapped with a fabric that is like Spanx,” says assistant athletics director for athletics facilities branding Rachel Curtis. Using fabric rather than cardboard gives “a deep richness of color and has some depth to it,” she says. “It plays well on camera.” And once you’re designing entire scrims, you don’t do anything generic.

One section of scrims spans the entire Cameron Crazies section, but you won’t see Barack Obama or other former players or famous visitors. “We really wanted this to be about the Crazies,” Curtis says, so she and her colleagues went through uncountable photos to include Crazies you’ll remember, “to really tell the story of what it’s like to be in that heated environment in Cameron.” So yes, of course, a million people painted blue, and a lot of Duke hats and shirts. But also Thing 1 and Thing 2 are there, and Cookie Monster guy is there, and Star Wars Storm Trooper guy is there. The Blue Devil himself actually appears more than once—hey, you have to take advantage of technology, right?

In fact, the layers of scrims mean that many speakers can be hidden throughout the bleachers, giving a sort of surround- sound effect. “Let’s say we play a ‘defense’ chant,” Arce says. Naturally, they play it from the student section, but with the multiple speakers set up throughout the section, “the idea is it can start in one speaker and then go to the next and to the next, as if the chant were started by a small group of people and it continued to grow, so it sounds more like a natural crowd would when they catch on to a chant.”

They have actual recordings of the pep band and the cheerleaders, so genuine Duke chants shouted by genuine Duke cheer squads, and genuine Duke songs played by the genuine Duke band, can emerge from exactly where scrims suggest they would be. And when during “hot time outs”—say after Duke hits a three and the opposition calls a time out—instead of playing “Shots” or “Temper,” Cameron standards, they’ll play songs chosen by the players themselves. It’s about the players.

In fact, to further support the players, Curtis undertook something of a secret project. “Behind the Duke bench,” she says, “we have our parents.” She didn’t tell the players what she was doing, and when she asked parents for photos she didn’t tell them why. “A lot of players on our team, they’re eighteen years old. These are the first games they’ve probably ever played without one or both of their parents watching them, and that really hit me like a load of bricks.” So, made on the sly, a scrim of the parents sits behind the bench, and it’s a hit with the players. “All of a sudden they walked in for practice one day, and they were like, ‘What?’ ” They shot pictures of the scrims back to their parents after practice.

When people are in the arena during the games, Savarino and Curtis sit with members of the Legacy Fund, significant donors to athletics. Since those donors can’t attend games, Curtis says, “I sit upstairs with an iPad, and I chat with those folks, as well as our parents, on a Zoom-type event.” They can see the action on television, “but I’m talking with them about the feeling, what’s happening.

“If a parent sees, say, [freshman forward] Henry Coleman take a charge and looks like maybe he gets hit a little bit, I’m able to go, ‘Oh, he’s up, he’s made it to the bench, he’s with the trainer,’ that type of thing. It’s kind of a different role.

“I never thought I’d be a sideline reporter for a small group.”

She says she felt a little sad at the first game. “It’s weird when you can hear the sneakers squeaking on the court. It’s very surreal.” But even as a Duke grad, “I’ve never been more proud to be a part of Duke than this year.”

Arce felt similarly, but she didn’t have that early jolt of sadness. “The first game of the season?” she says, “Seeing the team run out, and hearing the fight song? It was kind of one of those aha! moments. Like, okay, this is happening. We’re doing it. One of the things we’re known for is being one of the loudest and one of the craziest places to play.

“That’s exactly what we want. We want our players and our coaches to be able to say, ‘Okay, this feels right, this feels normal, we can compete. And the visiting team to say, ‘How is Cameron still the craziest and the loudest?’ ”

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