Pack the stands of underappreciated sports


James Hoeck

Graduate student runner Rebecca Craddock runs during the Illini Classic on April 9. A handful of smaller sports do not receive as much traction from fans in comparison to football and basketball when it comes to small crowds and less social media attention.

By Drew Friberg, Sports Editor

COVID-19 has changed the way sports have been played and viewed in the past few years. Adjusting to competing in smaller venues and behind closed doors was tough for football and men’s basketball programs across the country who expect packed stadiums full of students and fans alike. But for many women’s and smaller men’s collegiate programs, playing in small or empty venues is the norm.

Underappreciation of women’s athletics and smaller men’s programs on campus is something that isn’t new for many athletes. In fact, some have grown accustomed to playing for lesser crowds than their counterparts.

“If you go to a men’s match versus a women’s match, the atmosphere is so different,” said senior tennis player Ashley Yeah. “No matter what, they always get a decent crowd, and we go into our matches never expecting the same. We’ve never had quite the same crowd as them.”

Yeah and the rest of Illinois women’s tennis are coming off the back of their best season since 2018 when they reached the round of 32 in the NCAA Championships. A 16-9 record wasn’t enough for a bid to NCAAs this season, and their 11-1, dominant home record wasn’t enough to garner a consistent crowd at Atkins Tennis Center.

On the contrary, the 14-14 men’s tennis team packed out the same facility for their home matches, despite going just 10-5 at home. While both teams are deserving of support from the student body, only one program receives it.

Graduate student runner for track & field and cross country, Rebecca Craddock, has noticed women’s and smaller sports starting to gain traction, though. In her five years at Illinois, she has noticed a huge difference in the treatment of sports within the community and on social media.

“People just don’t know what’s going on,” Craddock said. “When we made it to Nationals in my junior year, it was a huge accomplishment: We won Regionals! Our media person at the time put out a really, really great video about it, but I don’t think it reaches as far into the community as it should.”

While a video from men’s basketball and football would have reached tens of thousands, Craddock noticed that this video in particular only reached “parents and friends from back home.”

If students are looking to become a part of the Illini Athletics FamILLy, the best way to start is by following teams on social media and interacting with their posts, so more fans can see.

“Everyone’s on social media nowadays,” Craddock said. “It’s super easy to add to your Instagram story or just retweet something. I think engagement will really get those numbers up, and once it gets spread a little bit, it just takes off.”

While nearly every student on campus knew when Illinois men’s basketball won a piece of the regular season Big Ten trophy, not many students were aware of athletes making waves elsewhere.

Track and field star senior Olivia Howell earned All-American honors for the second year in a row and was the Big Ten champion in the mile race. While Kofi Cockburn also received Big Ten champ and All-American status, he received more than 10 times the amount of interactions on social media than Howell in their Illini Athletics social media posts.

Additionally, programs like women’s and men’s gymnastics, men’s golf, volleyball and women’s and men’s tennis all outshone the Illinois football program in 2021, with all teams garnering winning seasons or runs in the postseason. While this isn’t to say Illinois football doesn’t deserve its support from students and the community, other sports have been consistently performing above Illinois football, but they don’t receive even a fraction of the same support.

Engaging with smaller sports and building that community is exciting. Being a part of the fanbase of smaller sports is something that can typically be done for free and without committing a whole weekend to it.

“My friends and I decided we wanted to see at least one event per team while we’re on campus,” Craddock said. “You can do it easily. There are so many different events going on, and there are so many different sports. I think students and other community members are like ‘OK, Saturdays are football games, we’ll go to all those,’ but they don’t see that there is a game or event or match going on pretty much every single day.”

Playing for big crowds isn’t just rewarding for athletes either. A lot of times, the support can help change the momentum in a close match. Sometimes, just being in attendance can be the difference between a team’s biggest win of the season and a loss.

This was true on April 17. After Yeah and the rest of women’s tennis went down 2-0 to conference and in-state rivals Northwestern, the team brought it back and won in dramatic fashion with a score of 4-3. Atkins was at its loudest for its women that day. A little help from the men’s team on rivalry weekend was all that was needed to push freshmen Kasia Treber and Megan Heuser to set three victories and clinch the match for the Illini.

“One of the biggest wins we had this season was against Northwestern, and that was largely due to our men’s team being there and being really loud,” Yeah said. “The energy was really great, and it got on the nerves of the people on Northwestern while also helping us out. I think the crowd was really pivotal in that match to help us get that really big win.”

Smaller programs on campus don’t have to be smaller programs. Simple forms of support can go a long way in helping students find a community, helping athletes find success and creating an even bigger famILLy.


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