This past year, Illinois football had it’s lowest average home attendance in the past 5 years. Illinois basketball had its second-lowest attendance in the past 5. There’s a serious issue with Illinois Athletics right now, and it’s not just the disappointing play.
Cassie Arner, associate athletic director in charge of marketing, fan development, and strategic communication, has spent plenty of time around Illinois sports. Serving as the Football sports information director from 1997-2010, she spent six years at Auburn before returning back to Illinois in January 2018.
“We’ve got to get people interested,” Arner said in an interview. “If you look across at the most successful student fan bases, they’re ones that are participating early. They’re coming to the stadium early, they’ve got events that are coinciding with whats happening at the football stadium. They’re not doing things that are separate.”
The “things that are separate” that Arner is referencing, is what’s known on campus as “block”: Fraternities and sororities pairing up to spend their Saturday mornings, sometimes as early as 6 A.M., going to campus bars rather than the football games.
“If you look at our largest individual group, which is our greeks”, Arner said, “they’ve been participating far away from the stadium. That’s a big challenge.”
Sabrina Thiel has the Director of Marketing and Fan Development at Illinois since 2014. When asked what the athletic department was doing to attract students, she saw opportunity in Grange Grove.
“Before there wasn’t an area for a student to tailgate,” Thiel said, “that’s why they would go to the bars. Block used to be: go to the bar and pregame but you bought a “block” of tickets and you sit in your block of seats.”
Bobby Ernsting, a sophomore in Sigma Chi, doesn’t want to go to the football games until the level of play improves.
“Why would I spend my Saturday mornings watching us get destroyed every single time?” Ernsting said. “I would go to the games if we were somewhat competitive.”
But according to Cassie Arner, the level of play will only improve if the fans start coming, and soon.
“The fans have to come first,” Arner said, “because we will not be able to recruit the highest level of student-athlete if they come to a place and there’s no passion, no dedication from the fanbase.”
Some places may not want to see a dedicated fan base such as the campus bars. If more students start tailgating and going to the games instead of heading to the bars, the culture change would hurt revenue.
Matt Baran, a manager at the Red Lion, located on the corner of Third St. and Green St., said, “As bad as it sounds, its been good for business that our football team has sucked the past few years.”
Baran, a senior studying Mechanical Engineering, has been a manager for two years. In his time at the Red Lion, he said there’s often been Saturdays that they don’t even have the Illinois football game on TV at block.
“I remember the Ohio State game this past year, we changed the channel after the first quarter we looked so bad,” Baran said. “People would just rather watch good football.”
Anthony Ryan, a manager at a rival bar, Kam’s, feels differently about if the football team improved.
“Of course I want to see our football team make a bowl game or our basketball team make it to the NCAA tournament,” Ryan said, “even if that means losing block.”
“We’re building our relationship with greek life,” Sabrina Thiel said. “We’re trying to get them to not do block at the bars, but do block at Grange Grove.”
This past fall, the athletic department pitched the idea of tailgating in Grange Grove to a small number of fraternities and sororities, but the idea fell through after just one week.
“We had a few fraternities that were on board with it, but they were just supposed to create their own thing, but they still signed a contract with a bar,” Thiel revealed.
After the university realized that the bar the greek houses chose to pair with, Joe’s Brewery, failed to obtain the necessary licenses to distribute food and liquor within Grange Grove, the tailgates were shut down for the rest of the year.
Another way the athletic department tried getting students to come last year was by bringing in Chicago-based artist Louis the Child to perform in Grange Grove before the Nebraska game on September 29. Even then, with high student attendance, students left afterward and didn’t watch Illinois fall 28-6, failing to score a touchdown
With a new offensive coordinator and a recruiting class highlighted by four-star defensive tackle Calvin Avery, the football team hopes to give students and local fans alike a reason to fill Memorial Stadium next fall.
“I hate to say winning helps, but it does,” Thiel said, “but also the atmosphere helps.”