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Dogs, bears, celebrities fill in for fans

The Longwood University basketball fans hanging out on game days at Willett Hall are a bit different this year.

Like loyal Lancer faithful they arrive early and stay late. Whether the Lancers win on a last-second shot or lose by double digits, the fans maintain the same cheery countenance throughout, although they’ve been known to be a little stiff at times.

The cardboard cutouts and stuffed animals filling in for the real Lancer basketball fans during the pandemic are the work of Brian Rushing, the director of athletics marketing and fan engagement at Longwood, and Katie Pate, the associate athletics director for external operations.

“Obviously the cutouts had become the new norm rather quickly in a non-fan environment. So we kind of realized that cutouts were going to be the way to go, but we knew that wasn’t really going to be satisfactory,” Rushing said, explaining that he and Pate wanted to do something beyond the cutouts that have popped up in stadiums and arenas across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rushing said he was watching an Arizona Diamondbacks baseball game back in the summer when he noticed a group of stuffed animals sitting in the left-field stands. He didn’t understand why this group of plush kids’ toys were sitting in the outfield, so he called the Diamondbacks and discovered that Arizona’s left fielder David Peralta was bored without fans in the stand to interact with.

“Apparently, he’s one of those really outgoing baseball players who like to talk to fans during the games,” Rushing said.

Peralta told the Diamondback he wanted something in the stands he could throw baseballs to and talk to when he was in the outfield.

“That’s where it kind of got weird for me,” Rushing said. “But at that point the Arizona Diamondbacks decided to put plush animals out there, and for every home run the Arizona Diamondbacks hit they donated one of those plush animals to the local children’s hospital.”

That was the inspiration for Longwood’s Bench Buddies program. Fans can purchase a bench buddy for $75 to have in their place at the game. At the end of the year, the fan can take the stuffed bear with them along with the Longwood T-shirt that is with it, or they can donate the bear to the Prince Edward County Public Schools.

In addition to cardboard cutouts of fans and stuffed animals inhabiting the courtside seats, Willett Hall has gone to the dogs in certain sections of the arena. Rushing and Pate, both owners of rescue dogs, partnered with the Lynchburg Humane Society and the Southside Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) to create “Elwood’s Fur-ends.” The program features cutouts of pets up for adoption. Fans can sponsor a pet cutout for $25 with the proceeds benefitting the humane society and SPCA.

“It really caught on quickly. Out of the 39 pets that we started with in the promotion, 22 pets have already been adopted,” Rushing said.

In addition to the regular cardboard cutouts featuring season ticket holders, there are a few celebrity cameos the fans watching the games on ESPN+ may see hanging around this season. In marketing the cutout promotions to Lancer season ticket holders, some Longwood boosters have gotten creative with who they have chosen to represent them in the stands.

“One of our young boosters asked me, ‘Can I send in pictures of anybody?’” Pate said. “We had several season ticket holders send in pictures featuring some of their favorite celebrities or people who they thought would really eat it up cornball-wise having those faces in the stands.”

Some celebrities seen at Willett Hall this year are actor Danny Devito, sports talk personality Dan LeBatard, Morris the cat and rap star Soulja Boy, along with the Prison Mike character and Kevin from “The Office.”

Although the Lancers are moving into the heart of the Big South Conference schedule, there is still room for fans to get a cutout or a stuffed bear in the gym.

“I think my best case scenario would have been if there was some sort of cutout Krzyzewskiville outside of Willett Hall,” Rushing said. “Until we get to that point, there are always opportunities for people to purchase their cutout and see the stretch run of conference play virtually.”

Pate said some mid-season specials on the cutout promotions will be available in the coming days for the second half of the season.

“What was really cool was, during first game featuring them, seeing our fans up at the TV taking a picture of the screen,” Pate said. “It really has been fun.”