ESPN’s Chris Fowler On What Makes The Penn State White Out So Special
ESPN play-by-play announcer Chris Fowler is making his return to Happy Valley this weekend to call the White Out for the fourth consecutive year. Fowler, who spent part of his childhood in State College while his father taught at Penn State, often remembers Beaver Stadium as the place where he fell in love with college football as a wide-eyed middle schooler watching Joe Paterno’s teams throughout the 1970s.
Having spent part of his life following the Nittany Lions and more than three decades immersed in college football as a career, Fowler sat down with Onward State Friday morning to discuss what makes the White Out so special. Although he says he can barely recognize Beaver Stadium from the “horseshoe steel erector set” he grew up watching games at, calling games there still holds a special place in his heart.
“State College is such a classic college town,” he said. “There’s spirit here that’s reflected in the White Out. The White Out’s been done well to increase fan frenzy and elevate the passion. The unity that’s expressed by the crowd wearing white and during the sing-a-longs has elevated the gameday experience.
“In a big-game environment, thanks to the student section being huge, Penn State gameday is as good as it gets. It’s definitely the best north of the Mason-Dixon Line.”
Fowler said that the fanfare that goes into creating the White Out atmosphere is a stark contrast from the crowds he grew accustomed to during his childhood.
He described fans inside of Beaver Stadium in years past as being “more polite and more conservative” than today’s supporters who are known for their deafening “We Are” cheers and shameless singing of “Livin’ On A Prayer,” “Sweet Caroline,” and of course, “Zombie Nation.”
“It’s night and day from when I came in the 70s,” he said. “The White Out was created because back in those days, Penn State was not known as a terribly vocal, raucous, disruptive home crowd like it is now. They created it because people seemed afraid to get crazy and stand out from the crowd. The White Out now has done kind of a 180 where you stand out if you’re not passionate or into it.”
Beaver Stadium has certainly come a long way from being “not known as a terribly vocal, raucous, disruptive home crowd.” That was powered in part by the start of the White Out in 2004.
Athletics’ former director of communications and branding Guido D’Elia pitched the idea of having fans all wear the same color to the game to Joe Paterno before the season. In an interview with The Athletic‘s Audrey Snyder, D’Elia compared the stadium to “opera crowds” and said that the student section just wasn’t having any fun.
If you have a subscription to The Athletic, Snyder provides a fairly thorough overview of the White Out’s history and how D’Elia, his team, and a group of student marketing interns led the charge to white out the student section for a game against Purdue in 2004. Somehow, it worked and returned during the subsequent seasons. By 2007, the White Out had spread to the rest of the stadium for the Nittany Lions’ game against Notre Dame.
That guerrilla effort, which took shape before social media dominated college campuses, is what allowed the White Out to catch on and helped foster a greater change in identity, according to Fowler. Instead of the team’s Twitter accounts pushing announcements onto fans and force-feeding them what to wear to the game, the organic approach translated to greater buy-in.
“The White Out was beautifully marketed and not forced down anyone’s throats,” he said. “Regular fans wanted to be part of it, and now, the fans own it. It isn’t about the school telling them what to do or what to wear. And that’s the best kind of tradition.
“Down south, you always expect it’s going to be rowdy, disruptive, and crazy. That’s part of the football culture there. It took time to engrain that here, but I think the students have taught them how to act with the student-only.”
The White Out’s success has inspired plenty of other teams to attempt to replicate it. But really, no promotion has come close to rivaling the effect. For one, having an entire stadium wear black is far from the same as having fans do so in white.
“The White Out is the most successful thing like this because it was organic and rolled out with a lot of marketing savvy,” Fowler said. “It’s been imitated a bunch of times and you can do it, but it feels like you’re copying someone else because you are.”
Fowler noted Ohio State’s black outs specifically as a failed attempt at re-creating the White Out atmosphere, mainly because the visual of an all-white stadium in the night is one of the most picturesque sights. That visual is what stands out to Fowler as one of the game’s greatest facets, especially from a network’s perspective.
After all, while more than 110,000 fans can pack inside of Beaver Stadium, more than nine million tuned into the White Out last year. Fowler even called the game his TV director’s favorite broadcast of the year because of how beautiful the crowd looks while decked out in white.
“It’s a blast for the people in the stadium, but many more people watch on television,” he said. “And for them, we pull out all the stops with the visual show. It looks spectacular. Everyone wearing white is exceptional and a sign of unity. The show of force brings a different energy level.”
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