Trev Alberts' suspension of Nebraska balloon release isn't just hot air
Nebraska athletic director Trev Alberts deflated one of the most iconic traditions in the Big Ten this week, announcing that the university will not provide fans with red balloons to release when the Cornhuskers score their first touchdown of each home game.
It’s a bit of a bummer. Like sold-out games, the balloon release has been a Memorial Stadium tradition for more than 50 years. There is a significant portion of the Nebraska fan base that can’t recall life without them.
So I actually empathize with fans who have decidedly over-the-top reactions to the news. Think of how you’d respond if one of your traditions was suddenly stripped.
Say, throwing back opposing home runs at Wrigley Field because one might hit a player. Or ending “Jump Around” at Camp Randall Stadium because police officers are called pigs in the lyrics.
You might very well transform into a mouth-breathing cartoon character, Incredible Hulk-style. Traditions don’t earn that status unless they come to mean a great deal to people. Take them away, and suddenly there’s hell to pay.
— Channel 8 KLKN-TV (@Channel8ABC) May 24, 2022
I’m not here to rip that guy. I dig his style, much as The Stranger digs The Dude’s. But in this case, he’s wrong.
Alberts is making the right call due to circumstances well beyond his control.
Helium shortage isn’t hot air
On his Husker Sports Radio show, Alberts cited a worldwide helium shortage as the reason for suspending the balloon release.
“Some of the production of it is really challenged, and it’s hard to get,” Alberts said. “So we’ve been asked by the university — the helium we are getting as a university, we need to use for medical purposes at UNMC in Omaha. And so we are, this year, not going to be providing the red balloons.”
Worldwide helium shortage, though it would make a great album name for a jam band, sounds like a bunch of nonsense.
Everyone knows those darned environmentalists have been trying to get rid of the balloon release for years. And just this past fall, Nebraska’s student government approved a non-binding resolution to put a stop to the practice. The red balloons have a target on their backs.
A helium shortage sounds like the perfect cover for giving in to those demands without admitting that’s what you’re doing.
But guess what? The helium shortage is the real deal. This isn’t a smoke-and-mirrors situation.
According to Physics Today, we are in the midst of what is being called Helium Shortage 4.0. And it’s having serious ramifications in the scientific community, which uses helium for more important purposes than talking like The Chipmunks.
Elsewhere in the Big Ten, Rutgers physicist Eva Andrei is only able to operate 1 or 2 of the 4 scanning tunneling microscopes in her laboratory. I don’t read Physics Today frequently enough to know what scanning tunneling microscopes are used for, but I’m willing to bet it’s more important than filling a balloon that will be released for a touchdown against North Dakota.
In all seriousness, the article — which was published in early April — notes that 4 of the 5 largest world helium suppliers are rationing clients to 45-60% of their contracted amounts. For those who don’t have an existing helium contract, it’s even tougher to come by.
Russia is another factor. One of the world’s largest helium processing plants was knocked offline there in January. It’s expected to be back up in the 2nd half of the year, but Western sanctions due to Russia’s war in Ukraine will complicate its exportation.
It would be downright flippant to keep the balloon release going in 2022.
The search for a substitute
There’s a pretty important detail for Nebraska fans to remember here. A couple of them, actually.
Nebraska is suspending the tradition of providing fans with balloons.
There is a chance that it will come back. By the fall of 2023, the world might not be so hard up for helium.
Alberts also gave no indication that Huskers fans would be stopped at the gate if they showed up bearing their own red balloons. The university isn’t banning balloons. It simply isn’t providing them. Surely some hustling Lincoln street entrepreneurs will find a way to capitalize on this and start hawking balloons along with peanuts.
Nebraska will try to find some way to make up for the lack of balloons. Alberts mentioned the totally uninspiring option of digitally representing the balloons on Memorial Stadium’s videoboards. That’s nice and all, but it ignores the fact that it’s not the balloons that make the balloon release interesting.
It’s the interactive element. Releasing a balloon is like singing along with the artist at a concert. It’s fun because it’s a way to connect to the performance you paid to see.
I’m not in tune with the current costs of the North American confetti market, but providing fans with red-and-white confetti to toss in the air seems like it would be big fun. Provided everyone has a lid on their drinks.
Or if striking visuals are the thing, why not shoot off red fireworks after the first touchdown? It would still look cool without choking a duck in Vermont.
And if Alberts really wants to get crazy, maybe there could be both confetti and fireworks. Why limit yourself?
After all, the bigger the spectacle, the more receptive fans will be to creating a new tradition than returning to the old one. This isn’t a permanent helium shortage, but it also won’t be the last.
If handled correctly, this is an opportunity to enhance a cool tradition and make it even cooler.