A lone purple Minnesota Vikings tent on an otherwise vacant surface parking lot near U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday sheltered an impressive party of two.
A pickup powered a flat screen, tunes and a heater. Cider warmed on the stove. The beer was icy cold. Food was plentiful.
"This is our way of trying to be normal," said Rob Sande of Lakeville, the chief cook for the game-day gathering just a couple of blocks from where the Vikings played the final home game of the season.
The Vikings lost to the Chicago Bears 33-27 in a stadium devoid of paying fans, who have not been allowed in the building because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Even in rocky seasons like this one, the Vikings have been able to rely on fans filling their big stadium with energy and an unflagging belief that maybe this would be the year they would return to the Super Bowl.
But this year, they couldn't even fall back on the fans. There was noise, but no roar. There were fireworks, but no fire. There was music, but no dancing. And now, once again, there's mostly just hope for next year, and not just for the team on the field, but a chance to get together, celebrate, lament and shake the joint with the thundering Skol chant.
Vikings director of entertainment Greg Bostrom had the unenviable task of trying to make the building come alive despite the absence of 66,000 fans. He had to work within NFL-imposed decibel limits and COVID-related rules. A single fan was allowed in Sunday to blow the pregame Gjallarhorn from the platform above the western end zone, but the national anthem could not be performed live in the building.
Puffs of smoke spouted for player introductions, but the dragon on the Viking ship was not allowed to breath fire. Prince's "Controversy" and "Let's Go Crazy" were piped in at appropriate moments, but there would be no roar of approval or signal of derision from masses in the purple seats.
"There is simply no replacing the fans, no matter what you do," Bostrom said. "The No. 1 most important thing we can do is find a way to get the fans back."
Over the course of a normal season, the Vikings bring about 700,000 fans into U.S. Bank Stadium. On a normal game day, they need a staff of 3,000 concessions, hospitality and security staff. This year they've had skeleton crews of several hundred on game days and the building's been kept quiet, clean and safe every other day.
In October, when Gov. Tim Walz briefly eased restrictions on indoor gatherings, the Vikings were allowed to bring in up to 250 fans — mostly friends and family of the players — who sat socially distanced in the southwestern corner of the building. Over the course of the three games that it was allowed, the team ushered in no more than 700 fans total.
The Vikings spent months, working along with the NFL, developing plans to bring fans back safely into the building by keeping them in discrete pods where they wouldn't mingle and planning for no-excuses enforcement of masking and social distancing.
Instead, November brought the return of more severe state restrictions on indoor gatherings. There would be no fans in the stadium this year. Across the 31 other NFL teams, the situation was similar, with attendance restricted depending on local rules and stadium sizes. The games were played for the TV audiences at home, cameras sometimes panning the sea of empty purple seats.
Bostrom and Bryan Harper, the team's vice president for content and production, tried to devise ways to make fans feel closer to the action and players closer to their fans and family. They increased pregame video, showing players warming up.
Players missed being able to run over to their kids for pregame snapshots, so Bostrom and Harper worked to get more families in the pregame shots, showing their enthusiasm and support from afar as many of them have done since the players were kids.
"Every game we try to create whatever type of atmosphere we can, but it just feels like it falls short every week," Harper said.
Not only were fans not allowed in U.S. Bank Stadium, they weren't allowed to tailgate on the few remaining spaces downtown. There were no pregame events outdoors on the plaza.
So despite visual evidence to the contrary — their Vikings jackets, hats and jerseys and the spread of food and libations — Sande and his game-day cohort Scott Johnson of Cottage Grove said they were most definitely not tailgating in the middle of that downtown parking lot.
"We're protesting," Sande said. "That's legal."
They've pulled off their "protests" without incident — for every Vikings home game after the opener against the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 13.
"This is what we do on home [game] Sundays. Rain or shine," Sande said.
In a normal season, the lot they used would be full and the overlooking bar, the Crooked Pint, would be shoulder-to-shoulder with fans raising beers, eating pregame burgers and dancing in the aisles. Instead, a lone couple on the sidewalk out for their morning constitutional shouted "Skol" to the two tailgaters.
"Once in a while, we get that," Johnson said of the shout-out from passersby. "Some people honk their horns."
Sande and Johnson say the Vikings need help on defense next year. But like NFL utility players, they will spend the offseason waiting on the question of whether fans like them will be called back for 2021.
For 2020, it's just laments.
"It's too bad what happened down here. The vibrance is gone," Sande said as he looked around the empty lot, then added, "At least we're still here."
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