It may be one of the most spirited of NFL rivalries, but the Minnesota Vikings-Green Bay Packers border battle Sunday will be remarkably subdued regardless of the action on U.S. Bank Stadium's disinfected turf.
There will be no fans — none — in the 66,000 purple seats. The few tailgating spots north of the stadium, usually abuzz at dawn for the Packers game, will be open only for the 250 Vikings employees working during the game.
No bands jamming on the west plaza. No lawn games in the park. No scalpers or T-shirt vendors or transit cops checking the tickets of fans arriving on the Blue and Green lines.
"For our fans, we know this isn't the normal way they enjoy games on Sundays," Vikings COO Andrew Miller said Thursday.
But the team is trying to make it work for fans, with new offerings to keep them close to the action even from afar.
And for the players in the empty stadium, the team is doing all it can to create a home-field advantage without the benefit of a sold-out house in what will be the most unusual season opener in franchise history.
"It's obviously a unique year for us, especially when our job is to entertain the fans in the building," said Greg Bostrom, director of entertainment for the Vikings. "We're certainly mourning the communal aspect of 66,000 of our friends coming to experience this with us, but we're welcoming the challenge."
In the months since the coronavirus pandemic swept into the country, the NFL and the Vikings have been forced to reconfigure their entire operations. There were no preseason games, and the fan-friendly late summer training camp sessions were closed to the public.
To control potential outbreaks, protocols were imposed at the team's Eagan headquarters to keep Vikings corporate staffers away from players and coaches. Many worked remotely.
The Vikings allowed season-ticket holders the chance to opt out of the 2020 season without losing their seats for next year, and about 60% took them up on the offer.
At 11 a.m. Sunday all the way up until 15 minutes before the noon kickoff, fans will find new features on the Vikings' media platforms, including the website and apps.
The team will broadcast on-field warmups "as if they were in the stadium watching it," Miller said. Fans will be able to watch video from a fly-on-the-wall camera inside the locker room.
"We wanted to think about, what are you missing?" when you're not at the stadium, Bostrom said. "We think it's a big opportunity. This allows us to reach a global audience."
Pregame ceremonies will nod to the social justice issues that emerged this summer after the death of George Floyd. His family is expected to be at U.S. Bank Stadium for special recognition by the Vikings, and for pregame warmups players will wear custom T-shirts listing the names of 200 people killed in racial incidents.
End zones will bear the messages "It Takes All of Us" and "End Racism," and players and coaches may wear helmet decals with social justice messages. The Black national anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," will be played, and the Star-Spangled Banner will be performed in a prerecorded rendition by the Sounds of Blackness.
Once the game starts, things will be quieter than usual since the NFL set a ceiling of 75 decibels for sound. During peak crowd reaction — think Minneapolis Miracle — U.S. Bank Stadium can hit a rattling 115 decibels, Bostrom said.
"We're really focusing on what will motivate the players and creating as much normalcy as we can in a very abnormal environment," he said.
There will be steady ambient crowd noise throughout the game, but the NFL is barring teams from creating reaction. Bostrom's crew is allowed to play celebratory video, sound and light sequences, such as Prince's "Let's Go Crazy" for scoring plays and to display the usual screen prompts when the Vikings are on defense.
"We can do all that but we can't make a crowd cheer," Bostrom said.
Are the players ready to perform without fans in the house, and does it matter to them?
"Seventy-five thousand people going crazy doing a Skol chant, I think that makes a difference," quarterback Kirk Cousins said.
Cousins and others, however, said they got a feel for the empty building during a scrimmage last week.
Asked whether it will be easier to play without the crowd, wide receiver Adam Thielen chuckled and said no.
"I guess maybe the big thing would be that it's unfamiliar, but at the same time, it's unfamiliar for the other team as well," Thielen said. "Whoever handles it the best ... whoever handles adversity or change or different things throughout the game, whoever handles that the best is going to have the best chance at winning."
As for the traditional Skol chant, Bostrom said stay tuned. There's a plan for that involving social media.
'It will be different'
Fans will be kept out of U.S. Bank Stadium until at least the third home game of the season on Oct. 18, when Miller said the team is hopeful that some percentage might be allowed to return. The Vikings play more home games toward the end of the year, so willing fans may yet see the inside of the stadium this year.
In the meantime, the team is trying to connect with fans in other ways, including a competition for the "60 Greatest Fans of All Time" to mark the team's 60th season.
Fans can pay to have their images in seats at the games, much as many have done at Target Field for Minnesota Twins games. The Star Tribune and Hy-Vee will give out free Vikings playbooks on Sunday gamedays.
Season-ticket holder David Smith, 31, of Lakeville, was among those who opted out of his tickets for the season but would be interested in single-game tickets later this season. On Sunday, he will be at home watching the game with one of his seat mates, his parents and family members.
"It will be different," he said. "It's something I've always done. I've never missed an opener."
But Smith wasn't interested in attending games with empty seats. "It's just not going to be the environment you go to Vikings' games for," he said.
Ron Puppe, 49, of Woodbury, a season-ticket holder for two decades, opted out of this year's tickets for the same reason. "It wouldn't be the same game. The energy wouldn't be the same without a third of the crowd," he said.
Puppe, who shares some tickets with friends and colleagues, always keeps the Green Bay game and the opener for himself. But this year he'll be at his cabin in Pine County with a couple of friends and family. If the weather's nice, he said he may head to a bar with outdoor seating to be around more people.
Miller said it's a huge accomplishment for the NFL to get the season started even without fans in the building. "We certainly hope that once noon on Sunday comes, it does get to feeling normal," he said.
All will be well, Puppe said — "as long as Green Bay loses."