Floating through the student section at the Boise State vs. University of Nevada, Las Vegas basketball game Feb. 22, was a colorful and bizarre collection of "fat heads." These three-foot-high cut-outs included many basketball players' faces, Boise State basketball head coach Leon Rice, and celebrities like Zach Galifianakis and Eli Manning. Students also held up giant spinning hypnosis wheels to distract the other team during free throws.
Sitting one row up from the basketball court, sophomore Cameron Hutchinson wore a hockey mask painted with orange and blue stripes. He had slapped a Broncos sticker across the forehead of the mask and wore a clumpy, furry blue-and-orange wig underneath, synthetic hair sticking out in every direction.
For Christmas, Hutchinson's family had given him a giant, 3-D, expensive-looking Bronco-themed foam finger--he adds to his Boise State basketball fan attire every season.
To respond to a text message, Hutchinson held his phone two inches from one of the eyeholes, but not because the mask was in the way.
"Something most people don't know about me is that I'm visually impaired," Hutchinson said. "I can't see half the game and I still show up." He has only missed one game so far this semester and although it was for a "family matter," Hutchinson was disappointed he couldn't make it to the game.
This level of fandom is new: In the 2009-2010 basketball season, only 350 students on average went to Boise State basketball games. On Feb. 22, 2014, the number of students in the cheering section was quadruple that. They filled the "Corral"--Boise State's official student section--sporting beards made of blue and orange yarn, Mardi Gras beads, blue sunglasses, orange cowboy hats and Bronco sweatbands.
"I wanted to stand out in the crowd," Hutchinson said. "The players know all their wild fans and they get motivated to play better, so I want to be that motivation."[ Video is no longer available. ]
Every time his team had the ball, Hutchinson cheered and chanted with the rest of the student section, and every time UNLV had it, he booed. For every one of Boise State's free throws, all of the students held their hands out in front of them, like a giant congregation laying hands on one body.
Hutchinson chanted, "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oy, Oy, Oy!" when one of Boise State's Australian players took control of the game. He fell quiet only when the ball came within feet of the hoop.
Hutchinson is the athletic marketing department's favorite kind of student.
Lindsay Roberts, a marketing graduate assistant, has devoted the past six years trying to get students like Hutchinson out to the basketball games. Even in heels and a headset, she ran as hard as the basketball players during the game on Saturday night, organizing promotions and entertainment between periods.
She remembers when fewer than 400 students would come to basketball games.
"It was like, nothing," she said. "Then we had our first flash mob and got like, 1,500 students to show up. It was so cool to see our efforts pay off."
Since then, the student section has grown to a riot of blue and orange. Roberts said the basketball team has improved, helping students realize Boise State isn't only a football school.
But she and the university have put some serious effort into getting students into the arena. For this game alone, Roberts spent 20 hours getting the word out through email blasts, social media, fliers, sidewalk chalk, posters all over campus, videos and classroom visits from Buster Bronco, the giant, brown, fuzzy, basketball uniform-wearing school mascot.
And it probably hasn't hurt attendance that Boise State now offers incentives for students who go to games: water bottles and Bronco decals, as well as being eligible to win iPad Minis, a 50-inch TV, even a car.
"We want to create excitement for Boise State," Roberts said. "The biggest problem that we have is there isn't a lot of tradition here. So we're trying to get people excited about being in college and being connected to something, so when they leave, they can be like, 'Wow, I was part of something so cool. I did a flash mob,' or, 'I broke a student attendance record.' To feel like you left something behind [when you graduate] means a lot to students."
Roberts' big goal for the game on Feb. 22 was to fill the entire Corral section with #Project3K (a hashtag used in Boise State's social media), or 3,000 students. She helped organize a mid-game flash mob to Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" and set up a TV in the arena lobby to teach students the moves, though the choreography wasn't complex: participants waved their arms around and brought their hands together on the word "prayer." Roberts missed her goal by half, but said she enjoyed the flash mob.
UNLV's small crowd of traveling fans couldn't make a dent in the decibels coming from the Corral. Boise State basketball player Jeff Elorriaga said the student section has an effect on him.
"The more fans we have, the better we play," Elorriaga said.
Elorriaga has played basketball at Boise State for four years and has seen the student section change. He said when the Broncos play away games against teams with outrageous student sections, the distractions work.
"You have to be really dialed in to the game to know what's going on and stay focused," he said.
Head coach Leon Rice feeds off of the energy from the student section, too. When he started coaching at Boise State four years ago, "you could have heard crickets in there," he said.
Now the student section is giving his team a better home-court advantage, Rice said. It's a cycle: The better the team plays, the more fans come to support. The more fans that come support, the better the team plays and the crazier the student sections gets.
At the Feb. 22 game, guys from Elorriaga's fraternity waved around his "fat head," with its one eyebrow raised as if to say to the other team, "That's the best you got?"
If UNLV had an answer, it couldn't be heard over the roar coming from the Corral.