(WSCR) There has long been an apparent gap between Chicago sports fans and the University of Illinois’ athletic programs and Illini Athletic Director Mike Thomas is determined to fix it.
“I think to a certain extent that is a fair statement and we’ve got to do better,” Thomas told Laurence Holmes on 670 The Score Tuesday. “I said the minute I walked in the door, ‘We need to be the king of Chicago.’ I really should have said that we need to be the king of the state. Chicago’s obviously within the borders of the State of Illinois. We came out with the theme ‘Our State. Our Team.’ But we’ve got to do more in Chicago.”
Listen: Mike Thomas On The Laurence Holmes Show
That includes playing games in Chicago. The Illini football team will play Washington at Soldier Field next fall and the basketball team currently plays one game a year at the United Center, including an upcoming contest against Auburn Dec. 29.
Still, Thomas is toeing the line with games being played in Chicago. When asked if he would be open to a basketball tournament consisting of Chicago-area teams, Thomas said “I certainly don’t think that’s beyond the realm of possibility,” but then added that head coach John Groce wants to play more home games. Thomas said the Illini are currently near the bottom of the Big Ten in the number of home non-conference games.
The University of Illinois is currently working on branding in Chicago beyond sports and Thomas thinks the athletic department can build on that. He specifically mentioned radio branding and billboards. They started their “Our State. Our Team” campaign this year and many assumed it was in response to Northwestern’s “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” campaign. Thomas said that’s not the case though.
“It’s not about us and Northwestern or anyone else up there,” Thomas said. “I have great respect for (Northwestern Athletic Director Jim Phillips), he’s done a tremendous job and will continue to do so, but I think if we take care of our own, we’ll consider ourselves very successful.”
Thomas said it’s unrealistic to think they can convince people to change which team they root for. Instead, they need to work on their own fans and those who might be undecided.
“We’re probably not going to flip them,” he said. “That’s probably not a place where we’re going to be successful. At the end of the day, we need to be successful with those people that went to school here, with those people who have been life long fans, with those people who might be in the gray area.”
The Illinois AD isn’t naive though. He knows the easiest way to get the Illini noticed in Chicago: win.
“You really have to win with your programs to get (Chicago fans) to come Champaign,” Thomas said. “Because I know they make a real commitment, a two to three hour drive to come down here each way. It’s very convenient for them to not want to do that when you’re not putting a successful product on the field or court.”
And in that regard, it’s a work in progress. Illinois’ football team was just 2-10 this season in head coach Tim Beckman’s first season, but John Groce has the basketball team off to a 12-0 start.
“With the alumni base we have up there, we have to do a better job,” he said.