In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, a big part of the MSU men's basketball team is missing during home games.
It’s moments like this that make the IZZONE special.
Michigan State star guard Cassius Winston dribbled up the right sideline at the Breslin Center, right past Michigan coach Juwan Howard. Winston was chased by Howard, earning the Wolverines coach a technical foul.
The Breslin was in a frenzy, but Winston was calm and launched a 3-pointer. Like most of Winston’s shots in his Michigan State career, swish. The Breslin Center erupted in a higher crescendo of cheers, with the IZZONE leading the charge.
“I’ve never heard Breslin as loud as it was at that point,” Michigan State junior Madeline Sterner said. “I thought Breslin was going to explode. . . That was a top 10 moment in my life.”
The world has changed a lot since that powerful moment on Jan. 5, 2019.
The normally raucous Breslin Center’s noted fan zones are silent, as the COVID-19 pandemic means fans cannot attend home games. The IZZONE is replaced by voiceless cardboard cutouts, in an acknowledgment to the student group’s importance to Michigan State basketball.
Tis’ the season for decoration
It’s not easy replicating the IZZONE and the famous MSU basketball environment during COVID-19. But the Breslin Center’s event management team has tried to make the arena as normal as possible.
But the fake crowd noise, IZZONE themed drapes, and cardboard cutouts won’t replace the real fan environment.
Seth Kesler, MSU’s Associate Athletic Director for Facilities and Event Management, had a lot to do with the vibe in Breslin this year. He said he learned a lot from how the NBA set up its arena in the Orlando bubble.
“I kind of reached out to a friend from the NBA who sent me the 120-page operations manual for their bubble,” he said. “I took what we had…Using the tenets of social distancing or physical distancing, we started to put a plan together.”
The Breslin Center, a 15,000-seat facility, looks more spacious than normal. The upper section of seats is covered by a black drape. The lower bleachers are pushed back and carpet surrounds the court.
Without the IZZONE to make noise and react to plays, artificial crowd noise is pumped into the arena throughout the game.
The crowd noise comes from EA Sports video games. EA Sports has been involved with the college football, college basketball and Madden sports games over the past decade.
“It’s consistent, there’s no breaks in it,” Kesler said. “It just goes for as long as you’ll play it.”
Michigan State has had access to sports-specific crowd noise for football and basketball.
For Michigan State football games, the crowd noise is set at 70 decibels throughout the game. When a big play happens it can go up to 90 decibels.
Inside the Breslin Center, it is set at 70 decibels throughout the game and 84 decibels at exciting moments. There is one rule involving artificial noise that contradicts what a normal game would be like.
“For free throws, you have to keep it the same no matter what,” he said. “You can’t turn it up for your opponent.”
Normally, the IZZONE commences their barrage of chants during an opponent's trip to the free throw line.
Michigan State has gotten compliments and made other schools jealous all around the country about the game day set up. Kesler points out that he wasn’t the only one who took part in preparing the Breslin Center for the season.
“I get credit all over the country and I’m quick to defer the credit to the right people,” Kesler said. “But everyone is pretty angry with Michigan State for probably having the best looking building in the country.”
The IZZONE: At home edition
Without the IZZONE able to have their impact from inside the Breslin Center, students have the opportunity to cheer on from home.
Michigan State created The IZZONE: At home edition. Director of Digital Marketing and Fan Engagement, Jim Donatelli has had a lot to do with the launch of the 2020-21 version of the IZZONE.
In a normal year, Donatelli is responsible for overseeing the entire IZZONE operations. He oversees the membership process, ticket sales, gameday set up, and chants and cheers.
With COVID-19, Donatelli had to rethink how the IZZONE could still be active in a season where fans were not allowed at games.
This season’s IZZONE membership is 25 dollars. Students won’t get access to tickets, but will receive an IZZONE t-shirt and membership points to roll over towards next season.
“With the hype and buzz already building for next year, in addition to the hype and excitement of this years’ team, hopefully we’ll get people to realize ‘Hey, I need to buy this membership in order to get myself in a good position to get my tickets next year’,” Donatelli said.
Last season, the IZZONE had the most members in its history at 4,500.
“If we didn’t have COVID-19 and were able to have fans in attendance, I think it would've been similar to years past,” he said.
Donatelli said that just under 1,500 members have joined the IZZONE this season.
“I think it’s still a pretty good number considering they’re not really getting a whole lot,” he said. “We’re going to continue to push it and hopefully get that number to grow as time goes on.”
Although no specific plans have been put in place, Donatelli hopes the IZZONE can return to its full form next season.
“There’s still so much uncertainty,” he said. “Our full intention is to go back to a normal set up - The normal campout, leading to game selection, leading to upper and lower bowl.”
The IZZONE has been a family atmosphere since the beginning. Students from all different majors, dorms, fraternities or sororities come together every game to cheer on the Michigan State men’s basketball team.
During the 2020-21 season, Sterner, a section leader and social media TITLE, is creating content for the IZZONE Twitter and Instagram from her apartment.
“We’re still kind of learning during this socially distant environment,” she said. “Definitely the first couple games have been a learning curve.”
The IZZONE twitter page has been online since 2011. Currently, the page has a little more than 39,1000 followers. Sterner said the number of followers has remained steady during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Instagram page was started during the 2019-20 season. That account has been growing rapidly during the season.
“[The IZZONE] is such a huge part of a lot of people’s lives here at MSU,” she said. “Anything that they can do to get involved is a priority for them.”
Without members being able to make noise from the stands, Sterner and the IZZONE have had to adjust with how they share content.
“It’s really hard right now with the season not really being the same to stay engaged. So obviously that’s a priority that we’re trying to figure out,” she said.
The social media team has thought of different ways to have members feel a part of the action. IZZONE members have been able to send in their favorite memories and send photos of where they are watching the games.
Sterner has also taken advantage of the great relationship the IZZONE social media team has with the Michigan State men’s basketball social media department.
“We work really closely with the MSU basketball official twitter, so we just go off of each other,” Sterner said.
IZZONE members like Sterner are excited to be back in the Breslin Center when it is safe, jumping up and down, shouting chants, and cheering on the Spartans whenever the time comes.
“I miss the IZZONE so bad,” she said.