The first "College GameDay" trip to Winston-Salem will be about as unique as it gets.
ESPN’s college football pregame show will come to Wake Forest next weekend for the first time. Instead of broadcasting in front of a raucous crowd outside of Truist Field or on Hearn Plaza, ESPN will create a socially distanced stage on the 50-yard line of Truist Field with cutouts of fans in the background and viewing parties arranged close to the stadium.
Such are times during the COVID-19 pandemic, but that isn’t quelling Wake Forest’s excitement to host college football’s premier pregame show and to provide a showcase for not just its campus but for Winston-Salem on a day that several of the nation's highest-profile teams will begin their seasons.
“Certainly for Wake Forest having not previously hosted 'College GameDay,' it’s always been something we’ve desired and advocated for,” Athletics Director John Currie said. “The circumstances where we are right now, with our opening game being such a significant one from a national landscape, made this a great moment in time for it to happen.”
The season’s first edition of "GameDay" aired Saturday morning from ESPN’s studio in Bristol, Conn. There was some conjecture that "GameDay" would not travel this season because of crowd-size restrictions.
“Obviously it’s going to be a whole new 'College GameDay' experience, but we’re going to try to create the best possible experience for our Wake Forest fans, Wake Forest students, faculty, staff and the entire Winston-Salem community,” said Rhett Hobart, associate athletics director for fan experience and sales.
As previously announced, Wake Forest is offering fans the opportunity to purchase cutouts to be placed in the stands for games. Those cutouts will be set up in the background for "GameDay," Hobart said.
The school announced that its home games in September — Sept. 12 against Clemson and Sept. 26 against Notre Dame — would not be open to fans. With North Carolina in Phase 2.5 of reopening, outdoor crowds are limited to 50 people. Meanwhile, the university announced that despite the change allowed in Gov. Roy Cooper's modified phase, it would still limit outdoor gatherings for students, faculty and staff to 25 people.
The appeal for this pick has plenty to do with Wake Forest’s opponent. Clemson has won two national championships, has lost in the title game twice in the last five seasons and opens the season ranked No. 1 for the second straight season. The Tigers have beaten Wake Forest by a combined 115-6 in the last meetings.
In an offseason filled with storylines, one that ties Clemson and Wake Forest to each other beyond this game happened in a roughly 12-hour span in mid-August.
The night of Aug. 9, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence tweeted a series of points under the #WeWantToPlay label. On the morning of Aug. 10, President Nathan Hatch went to Wake Forest’s practice to hear players talk about how much it meant to them to play this season.
That’s part of the process that has led us to here — with college football nearly in full swing besides the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences that have postponed seasons and the Southeastern Conference, which is scheduled to start Sept. 26.
“I think in this particular case, given all of the dynamics, it makes sense," Currie said. "This is a really outstanding football program that Coach (Dave) Clawson has built. Clemson is obviously No. 1 in the country with the odds-on Heisman Trophy favorite. This is the biggest game. It’s the opening weekend for the Atlantic Coast Conference, which is obviously a strong partner of ESPN and ABC, so this is the one that made sense.”
For the show, fans will be able to drop off signs starting Monday to be shown on the broadcast. The cutouts — Demon Deaclones, as the school calls them — must be purchased before Wednesday.
Winston-Salem will become the 90th city that "GameDay" has visited, and the city and Wake Forest plan to roll out quite the welcome mat.
Starting Monday, the flags hanging from light poles around the city will feature "GameDay" logos, Hobart said. There’s a planned painting of the "GameDay" logo in Bailey Park.
For a week, Winston-Salem and Wake Forest will go above and beyond the typical measures taken when "GameDay" comes to town.
“Regardless of the situation, those student-athletes and our band and cheerleaders who will be able to be a part of the morning show, so to speak, they’ve all been working their tails off all summer long,” Currie said. “And they’ve been doing it with masks and these special protocols and quarantining and isolation and stuff like that.
“What a great, special reward that adds to this memory for all of those young people.”
Asked if there was any pause given to hosting "GameDay" for the first time when fans can’t attend, Currie said it was an opportunity that couldn’t have been passed up.
“Well, you’ve gotta take your opportunities when the opportunities present themselves," Currie said. "Part of the question from ESPN early on was ‘could we do it?’ based upon on the health and safety parameters that we have. We’re a can-do type of place, so we figured out how we could do it, and we’re surely not going to turn down an opportunity like this.
“Our plan is we’re going to show such a great experience and the city of Winston-Salem is going to be such great hosts and we’re going to have a great production and a great show, and … they won’t want to wait very long to come back.”
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