UI Alumni on East Coast Making Presence Felt

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Last year’s pregame event ahead of the Jimmy V Classic was something of a relaunch for the Metro New York Illini Club following what had been a total shutdown of anything like it during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That nearly 300 Illinois fans showed up at Stitch Bar and Blues — a short walk from Madison Square Garden — was a pleasant surprise. So was Illinois’ overtime victory against then-No. 2 Texas later that night at the iconic New York City venue.

The Metro New York Illini Club will be back at Stitch Bar and Blues on Tuesday. But the pregame event planned ahead of another Jimmy V Classic appearance for the Illini will only be part of a busy few days.

Another pregame event is scheduled for Saturday at Stuff Yer Face in New Brunswick, N.J., ahead of Illinois’ Big Ten opener at Rutgers. In between will be a Monday night event at Birdland Jazz Club, not far from Times Square, with Illinois alum Ben Jones as the featured performer.

“I would say the Jimmy V Classic event definitely brought an awareness to the organization,” Metro New York Illini vice president Taylor Knoche said. “I think there’s a unique group here in terms of a lot of people come to New York with the financial background, consulting background and even the theatrical performance background. We’re seeing more of a diverse group of individuals that maybe aren’t so sports-focused but have interests across the board. Moving into next year we’re trying to recognize that sports don’t have to be the center of our events but can add to that experience.

“I think the thing that has happened, which is really exciting, is that because of some of the events we’re hosting, people are coming out of the woodwork saying, ‘Hey, I have this event I am putting on. Would the club promote my event? Or could the club help me organize something around this interest group?’”

But basketball will be at the heart of most of the upcoming Metro New York Illini events. The Big Ten’s previous round of expansion that added Rutgers and Maryland created more opportunities for Illinois fans on the East Coast to see their favorite team play. West Coast Illini will get the same opportunity next year with the addition of UCLA, USC, Oregon and Washington to the conference.

A second straight Jimmy V Classic appearance simply doubles down on the number of times New York- and New Jersey-based Illinois alums can see the Illini play in the next five days.

“I think it just shows what we’ve always known — they will come,” Metro New York Illini Club president Sam Kellow said. “Illinois basketball fans are crazy. They will show up. … Interest is always higher when you have a good program, whether that be basketball or football. Last year the eagerness was higher because the football team was back. That led to deeper conversations about people who showed up. It hasn’t been lightning fast, but we have adapted and have started to cater to events that aren’t just sports.

“I know a lot of people are yearning for the old days when there were actually 10 teams in the Big Ten, but at the end of the day you’re just creating more experiences for your fans to travel the country, see different locations and also supporting their favorite school.”

Tuesday’s event at Stitch Bar and Blues will expand on what was offered last December. It will be a ticketed event, with costs providing a full buffet and two drink tickets. Tickets can be purchased ahead of time, but will also be sold at the door as long as the venue isn’t at capacity. Donations will also be accepted for the Metro New York Illini Club’s scholarship fund, which helps send a student from the metro New York area to Illinois.

Tuesday’s event also will include a special auction with a signed Deron Williams basketball available. Knoche also said that with the number of Marching Illini alums in the area that fans should expect some familiar live music.

Making this year’s event bigger came in part with more collaboration with the University of Illinois Alumni Association.

“We have seen an uptick, not necessarily in membership on the ground here, but in interest from the school to collaborate on more events,” Knoche said.

Source: The News Gazette