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Photos by Lindsay Coward

Featured Article

Minor League, Major Fun

Calling All Sports Fans

One Knox SC

Season: March to October

Location: Regal Soccer Stadium at the University of Tennessee

When Drew McKenna moved to Knoxville with his wife, Maria, who’s from Rocky Hill, he had already been looking at what the city lacked regarding professional sports. Research showed him that of the top 65 biggest markets, only three of those cities didn’t have a professional soccer team.

“Chattanooga has two, but Knoxville had none,” he says. “It just felt like Knoxville was underserved. Soccer was underserved.”

Drew connected with a group of Knoxville-raised soccer fans who wanted to be part of creating a local team. So, in 2019, Drew, along with Nadim Jubran, Kevin O’Brien, Scott Buchanan, and Mark McComas, started talking about the feasibility of a soccer team. They reached out to the United Soccer League to get the ball rolling. Of course, the pandemic in 2020 caused a snag in the plan, but by 2021, One Knox was underway, and last year, they played their first season.

“We looked around the Southeast and saw that soccer was doing well. When you look at the MLS level, the top clubs are Nashville, Charlotte, and Atlanta, which is the eighth highest-attended club in the world, alongside England and Spain,” says Drew. “Soccer has connected in the Southeast differently than around the rest of the country.”

The response to One Knox has been positive, with more than 850 season ticket holders and games with more than 2,000 in attendance. Coach Mark McKeever, originally from Scotland, came to the U.S. in 1998 and spent 17 years in collegiate coaching, thereby building a strong network of players. In this environment, networking was crucial when it came to starting a professional team.

However, One Knox isn’t focused solely on its own players. They’re also looking at the next generation.

“Youth soccer is a space we always wanted to be a part of, so we’ve been supporting it from our earliest days. We got a call from Knoxville Crush and the Knoxville Reds because both clubs were looking for long-term continuity,” says Drew. “We started investigating if it made sense, talking to boards and parents, so then we announced One Knox Youth Soccer. We want to retain what’s great about Crush and Reds but put them under one brand. We’ll have a platform to create access and aspiration for young people in Knoxville.”

The team currently plays at UT’s Regal Soccer Stadium, but they are looking forward to bringing 20 dates a year to the new stadium downtown set to open in 2025. At this rate, the future for One Knox is bright.

“I constantly hear people say, ‘I didn’t know it was going to be like this.’ I love showing people how fun it can be,” says Drew. “Come out to a game. The beer is cold, and the game is only two hours long.”

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Tennessee Smokies

Season: April to September
Location: Smokies Stadium in Kodak

Though minor league baseball started in Knoxville in the late-1890s, first with the Indians, followed by the Reds and then the Appalachians, it wasn’t until the 1920s when the Tennessee Smokies secured its name and started a long tradition of America’s Favorite Pastime alongside the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. They’ve been affiliated with a number of major league teams over the years, such as the St. Louis Cardinals and the Arizona Diamondbacks, but since 2007, they’ve been connected to Chicago Cubs.

“Affiliation means that all of the players are drafted or picked up from the Cubs, so we don’t have open tryouts or anything like that. These players are working their way up to play for the Cubs,” says Assistant General Manager Aris Theofanopoulos. “The team below us is the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. If a player does well there, he comes here. If he does well here, he goes to the Iowa Cubs in Des Moines. If he does well there, he goes to the Chicago Cubs. So far, we’ve had 140 players called up to the Cubs. Just last year, we had 17 Smokies players who debuted with the Cubs. It’s rare to skip ahead, but it happens.”

It's important to note that being a baseball fan isn’t required to enjoy a game day experience. While the games promise to be competitive and will showcase plenty of talent, the overarching goal is to offer a family-friendly environment with promotions and events designed to create lifelong memories.

“We’re proud to be known as America’s Friendliest Ballpark. Every game is somebody’s first game, so we want to make it special every time,” says Aris. “That’s from the ground up – from the parking attendants and ticket takers to the promotional team and staff members. We want to put together the best show possible.”

That endeavor translates to theme nights and contests, auctions and giveaways, and fireworks shows on most weekend nights from May to September, weather-permitting. They also love to partner with community organizations, such as wearing Tennessee-themed jerseys to benefit the Pat Summitt Foundation.

“We love to interact with fans and do so much for kids. We market towards families, so we tie in a lot of promotions to get kids to the ballpark. We have a 90s night with different appearances from characters. This year we have the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” says Aris. “We also have Princess Night. Kids can meet their princess heroes and also experience baseball.”

The Smokies are buzzing with anticipation about the new stadium slated to open for the 2025 season, which won’t be geared singularly towards baseball. There will be restaurants and shopping, a full hospitality area and plenty of scheduled events sure to pique everyone’s interest. Until then, it’s a quick trek on I-40 to exit 407 for the kind of summer fun families will remember forever.

“When you’re going to a Cubs or Braves game, you’re going to see players throw 100 mph and hit 450-feet home runs, but when you come to a Smokies game, you’re going to see people pied in the face or trying to catch a hot dog being thrown at them,” says Aris, laughing. “We want people to come out and enjoy affordable family fun, young and old. These are the future starts in the major league, so it’s always better when we win, but at the end of the day, it’s about having fun.”

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Knoxville Ice Bears
Season: October to April
Location: Knoxville Civic Coliseum

When summer ends and both the soccer and baseball seasons begin to wane, the Knoxville Ice Bears will just be getting started. Founded in 2002 as a charter member of the Atlantic Coast Hockey League, the Ice Bears have made the playoffs in every season of their existence.

“We’ve had the same ownership group for all 21 seasons,” says Joel Silverberg, director of broadcasting. “They’ve done a great job keeping hockey in Knoxville. We have fans who’ve been here since the Cherokee era, so it’s fun to see old jerseys.”

What started in the 1960s with the Knoxville Knights morphed into the Cherokees for about a decade, followed by the Knoxville Speed. Then came a new league, which only lasted a season, but the Southern Professional Hockey League was established in 2004, and the Ice Bears have been a part of it since. The fanbase grows consistently each year, averaging upwards of 4,000 for a regular game.

“Knoxville really loves sports. Obviously, there’s UT, but Knoxville is passionate about sports overall. Any time there’s been consistency, people go,” says Joel. “Consistent promotions is important but so is having a product that’s part of the community, plus the investment from the players. All our players are from up north or overseas, but they get involved in school and hospital visits.”

There are a few staple promotions that the Ice Bears support each season, such as the wiener dog races, which is always a sell-out event. There’s also Star Wars night during which the coliseum morphs into the Death Star with Storm Troopers who roam and lurk. They also partner with athletes and coaches from the University of Tennessee. On those nights, the Ice Bears wear smokey gray uniforms in solidarity.

“We want people to have fun, but we believe in our sport and our product. If we get people in the seats for a promotion, then maybe they’ll stay for the season. We had 1,400 season ticket holders this year, which is about half of our capacity,” says Joel. “We believe that if we can get people to a game the first time, then we’ll get them back a second time.”

In between the theme nights and media time-outs (that’s when the contests and giveaways happen), the Ice Bears are serious about spreading the word on the fun of their sport.

“We’re trying to grow the sport as much as we can. During the season, we have youth and adult skaters to learn skills, and there’s a youth hockey academy,” says Joel. “We want kids to fall in love with hockey and parents to let them. In the decade I’ve been here, I’ve watched Knoxville becoming a hockey town. Our fans continue to show up. We had seven sellouts last season and went 7-0 in those sellouts. It takes a special place to sustain the sport.”

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  • Photo provided by One Knox
  • Photo provided by One Knox
  • Photo provided by One Knox
  • Photo provided by One Knox
  • Photo provided by One Knox
  • Photo provided by One Knox
  • Photos by Lindsay Coward
  • Photos by Lindsay Coward
  • Photos by Lindsay Coward
  • Photos by Lindsay Coward
  • Photo by Daniel Moore
  • Photo by Daniel Moore
  • Photo by Daniel Moore
  • Photo by Daniel Moore
  • Photo by Daniel Moore
  • Photo by Daniel Moore

"Knoxville really loves sports... Any time there’s been consistency, people go." - Joel Silverberg of the Knoxville Ice Bears.