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Fan cutouts bring out the passion behind college sports

Programs in Indianapolis and San Antonio tell stories of fans across the country

One of the most disturbing noises that defined 2020 was the deafening silence of empty arenas nationwide as college sports came to a halt amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even after college sports returned, most fans still could not attend games.

Though a limited number of fans are back in seats for the Division I Men’s and Women’s Basketball Championships in Indianapolis and San Antonio, respectively, a fan cutout program is giving others the chance to show their faces at the Men’s and Women’s Final Fours without stepping foot in a stadium.

For Chris Korth of Kansas City, Missouri, the program is a chance to keep his streak alive. Korth, who has attended every Men’s Final Four since he was a Creighton student in 1981, cannot attend this year as he is still in recovery from cancer-related surgery. His family, wanting to make sure he didn’t miss this tournament, bought him a cutout.

Cutouts will be interspersed with real, live fans for the national semifinal games and national championship games in both Indianapolis and San Antonio. The programs will also help several local and national nonprofits. Proceeds from the men’s program will benefit the United Way of Central Indiana’s COVID-19 Recovery and Rebound effort and Hilinski’s Hope, an organization that supports student-athlete mental health and wellness. The women’s program will donate proceeds to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, the San Antonio Food Bank and the Pat Summitt Foundation, a group working to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

Many cutouts were submitted by family members or came directly from passionate fans who cannot attend the tournament in person.

One fan battling stage 4 breast cancer has attending a Final Four as an item on her bucket list. She will now be able to say she’s “been” to the tournament. “I’ll be on a cutout as a diehard Purdue fan,” she said.

Cutouts of a number of doctors and registered nurses will allow those fighting the COVID-19 pandemic to continue their college basketball fandom.

Front-line nurse and self-proclaimed college basketball super fan Krista Stalter will be in the stands in spirit. “College basketball this year has provided me the escape I needed after a long and stressful shift,” she said. “Watching Illinois this season has recharged my batteries!”

Jennifer Marra purchased a cutout of her 86-year-old mother, who works in intensive care and is the oldest licensed nurse in Connecticut. “She’s a rabid Huskies fan who talks about Geno (Auriemma) like he’s a member of our family,” Marra said. Her mom will be “present” if the UConn women’s coach manages to lead his team to a 12th national title.

The dedication messages that accompanied the cutout submissions are testament to the inspiration and comfort college sports can provide fans and communities. Athletes, coaches and even teams purchased many of the cutouts.

One such cutout, bought by an eighth grade girls travel basketball team from Bethel, Connecticut, was dedicated to their coach, whom they call Coach Dani. 

“Coach Dani is our mentor and inspiration and loves basketball more than anyone else we know,” the team said. “We feel so grateful to be coached by Coach Dani, who pushes us every day to be the best young female athletes we can be, both on and off the court!”

U.S. Soccer and the U.S. women’s national team also purchased cutouts, saying they “are proud to support and cheer on the incredible women competing in the Final Four. Keep competing, keep inspiring and embrace the moment!”

Timothy Stevens secured a fan cutout of his grandmother to show her Zag spirit. “People that come from areas with multiple successful sports programs to choose from don’t always understand the economic impact and unconditional joy that Gonzaga basketball brings to the surrounding communities,” Stevens said.

Though some fans might not be able to be there as they usually would, the fan cutout program has allowed hundreds to help fill Final Four stadiums with the passion that defines college sports.