There is no doubt game days around Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium are going to look different this year. All around college football, teams are having to adjust for limited crowd sizes, social distancing and everything else that comes with playing a sport in the middle of a global pandemic.

For North Carolina teams, that meant playing football with little to no fans in the stands earlier this month after Governor Roy Cooper initially declined requests to have players’ families attend the games past the 50-person limit established under Phase 2.5.

Last week, however, the governor reversed his decision and will now allow up to 350 family members of the student-athletes and coaches in the stands. On Oct. 2, that limit will increase to 7% of the total capacity of the stadiums, meaning the Pirates will be able to welcome around 3,500 fans.

For Saturday’s season-opener against UCF, however, the Pirates will be restricted to 350 fans, or less than 1% of the capacity of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

“I was pleased that the governor gave us 350 tickets,” ECU Athletic Director Jon Gilbert said. “We’ll be giving UCF 100 for their families. ECU will take the additional 250 and then we’ll be sitting in pairs. Each student-athlete that’s dressing is going to get two tickets. You’ll see those individuals spread out on the south side of the stadium in groups of two — social distancing. We’re going to limit the access at the stadium where they’re going to stay more in their seating area than behind, they obviously will have access to concession stands, restrooms. We’ll work to get all those individuals apart. We still will have several hundred people there that will work the stadium, work the game for game day. I look forward to seeing that on Saturday. Central Florida will be on the north side, behind their bench.”

On the field, the sidelines have been extended to accommodate necessary social distancing protocols and fans will see coaches and support staff donning masks. Head football coach Mike Houston expressed the possibility that all 118 players will be on the sideline in some capacity on Saturday, with the ones not participating in the game also sporting masks.

With a very limited number of fans in the stands, ECU plans to pipe in crowd noise over the stadium speakers at a level acceptable for both teams. All the Public Address announcements and music played during breaks will remain virtually the same as the athletic department attempts to create an authentic game day experience for fans and players.

For the fans unable to attend the game due to capacity restrictions, ECU’s marketing and fan engagement team has been working hard to ensure they maintain a role in the game day festivities.

On social media, the athletic department has been rolling out opportunities for fans to submit videos of themselves doing ECU chants like “first down Pirates” and “Purple…Gold.” The intent is to gather those and weave them into a bigger presentation to display on the video board during the game.

In addition, ECU Athletics released a virtual ticket that fans can take advantage of on the Pirates’ official Facebook page. It is free of charge to the public and will take viewers on a behind-the-scenes look at the production of the radio show. The steam will also mirror the in-stadium video board during the game and have plenty of ECU content during quarter breaks and timeouts. Access to the stream begins one hour prior to kick-off.

While Saturday’s game will be largely closed to the public, ECU will waste no time in drawing up plans for how to accommodate a capacity of 7% beginning on Oct. 17 against Navy. Between now and then, many questions will need to be answered, top among them being how will the department decide who to let in and who to exclude.

“We’ve had some initial conversations this week on that,” Gilbert said. “We’re going to turn our focus to that on Monday. With the seven percent obviously we’re going to have to reduce everyone. As it relates to seating, we’re going to make sure we get our donors in by priority. We’re going to limit the visiting team to 100 tickets. We’ll continue to offer two to our own football team so they can have their family members attend. Then we’re also got to try to spread it as much as we can because there are a number of constituent groups that really do need to get in from a priority standpoint. We’re going to have to be really methodical on how we do that.”

As the season progresses, ECU will likely be able to scale up its attendance plan, but that begins and ends with the governor’s office. For Saturday, Dowdy-Ficklen will have a bit of a strange feel to it, but at least the Pirates are playing football.

Kick-off against UCF is scheduled for noon.

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