Much like its efforts to improve the product in the gym or on the diamond are an attempt to recruit new players to the program, the Knox athletic department faces the challenge of improving its relationship with the Knox and Galesburg communities.
Once over-matched in both competitiveness and publicity in the era of 24-hour sports coverage, Knox understands gaining support from fans will take efforts from both on and off the field.
While sports like men’s basketball (sixth in the MWC), women’s basketball (fifth) and football (ninth) netted average to below average crowd turnouts this season, the Knox College men’s soccer team jumped from worst in home attendance in 2011 to first in 2012 after a turnaround that included the most home victories since the 2007 campaign.
“Wins come before community support. People love to support winning teams. It’s as simple as that, unfortunate as it may be,” freshman soccer player Charlie Harned said.
“You can see that Knox is moving in the right direction what with the success of baseball and soccer this year,” freshman Adam Schrag said. “A lot of people, myself included, base their support on the success a particular team has, so this is huge.”
And while many think Knox competes for victories against the likes of Monmouth or Grinnell, they are also competing for victories against Division I schools and pro teams who garner attention from students and local citizens that grew up supporting those teams.
Every Saturday in the fall, Knox fans have the choice to come out to watch Prairie Fire football or stay at home to watch teams go for a BCS national title. In the winter, Prairie Fire basketball home games often take place at the same time the Chicago Bulls or Blackhawks are on TV. At this moment, it seems fans are often choosing to stay home.
“Small colleges, I think, have it tough,” Galesburg Register-Mail Sports Editor Mike Trueblood, who has covered Galesburg sports for three decades, said. “People have allegiances to [the] University of Illinois [even though they] have never set foot on the campus. But they’re Fighting Illini.”
Historically, Knox’s most obvious rival when it comes to fan support has been Galesburg High School.
“Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, if there was a [Silver Streaks basketball game] on a Friday night, that was the thing to do. The whole town shut down,” Knox Sports Information Director Mike Perry said. “And I still found that Galesburg High School was number one in the city when I called games [at WGIL Galesburg Radio] for four or five years.”
Trueblood explains that the relationship between Knox athletics and the Galesburg community has never been “overly warm,” and that as Knox has struggled to produce notable achievements, local media coverage has tended to focus only on Prairie Fire athletes linked to Galesburg.
“The average fan being a fan, they’re only interested if [the teams] win unless there’s a local interest like a local kid playing on one of the teams,” Trueblood said. “Otherwise, I think it’s hard for people to make a connection unless [the player] is just a superstar stud.”
With limited buzz from the local media, Knox athletics has also increased efforts to branch out to fans with homegrown promotion.
“When I was with WGIL, it was 10 to 1 in terms of [department] press releases from Monmouth versus that of Knox,” Perry said. “I made it clear during the interview process [for the Sports Information Director job] that I was not going to simply do small game recaps. I wanted more photos, I wanted increased availability of statistics, basically one-stop shopping.”
To do this, Knox launched a new athletics website in November 2011, opening up the potential to broadcast games live and release results and game recaps directly to Knox’s audience.
“One of our goals with the website was to improve the image of the department,” Perry said. “People need to be informed. That’s where I come in. It is my responsibility to make people aware of accomplishments, promote the schedule and then our website in general.”
Knox has also revamped efforts to attract followers on Facebook and Twitter, including live-tweeting athletic events and posting stories detailing the experience of Knox athletes during winter and spring break tournaments.
“[Promoting on social media sites] is something the athletic and communications departments have put a premium on in recent years. This is not only for athletics, but the entire college. It’s something alumni and donors like to see,” Perry said.
Beyond what alumni think of the athletic program, the biggest change in perspective might come from within. While Knox must no doubt improve in the “win” column, President Teresa Amott said that fans must also learn to support teams for what they represent.
“One of the things about the athletic experience is that it is public when you lose. You go out on the field or the court, and your loss is completely public,” Amott said. “Everyone sees that, and it takes a certain kind of courage to come back the next day. I think the campus could learn some similar lessons.”
One of the core problems Knox athletics faces when it comes to attracting attention from students is the perception the average non-athlete has of the Knox athlete.
“Right now, I’d have to say that a typical Knox athlete is seen as not being too different from a normal student,” Schrag said. “They’re seen more as students who just happen to play sports; that’s not to say they don’t put the work in, or that they aren’t talented at what they do.”
Rather than the big event or school defining status sports usually play on a college campus, it would seem that Knox athletics are lost in the fold, an issue Harned said was reinforced by some of the athletes themselves.
“There’s a lot of athletes who put their all into winning, myself included. We care about the integrity of the sport, and care too much not to work hard,” Harned said. “But then there’s some athletes who don’t care as much, and play the sport as a secondary.”
For athletes like Harned, embracing a potential role to inspire the student body fuels the desire to play.
“The next thing to do is to make the athletes more visible on campus and to facilitate the mindset that comes from that,” Harned sad. “I’m not saying that athletes need to be put on a pedestal, but I want us all to know that anything is possible, both from athletes and from everyone in the Knox community.”
Athletic Director Chad Eisele echoed the sentiment of using Knox athletics to restore school spirit.
“It’s very important that we build a culture on the Knox campus where not just student athletes care about the success of the program. Everyone on the campus needs to have a sense of pride. It’s not like people are out there rooting for Knox to lose, but our campus and our community as a whole need to have a sense of excitement about athletic success,” Eisele said.
Managing Editor Charlie Gorney contributed to this report.