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Breese Stevens Field

Attendees relax on the turf during the fourth annual Yum Yum Fest at Breese Stevens Field. 

Operators of Madison's Breese Stevens Field are interested in bringing a minor league soccer team to Madison and hope to make changes to the stadium that will allow that to happen, continuing a trend of reviving the previously underutilized landmark.

Big Top Events has submitted a set of proposed changes to its contract with the city to manage Breese Stevens. Among them is a longer term lease, which would help secure a soccer franchise, according to Big Top Events president Vern Stenman. Stenman and his partners in Big Top own several collegiate summer baseball teams, including the Madison Mallards.

Stenman said his company has built a strong foundation since taking over operations at Breese Stevens in 2015, but the facility needs a unifying identity, which could be a minor league soccer team launching in 2019.

“We really see the top use coming in 2019 and the years beyond as we build this fan base with soccer and make it a flagship to a certain degree,” Stenman said. “The venue is cool, but it’s kind of lacked that anchor tenant.

The city hired Big Top to operate the facility, due largely to the company's reputation in reviving the baseball stadium at Warner Park in 2001 with the popular Mallards. Under Big Top's stewardship, Breese Stevens has hosted several concerts, local sporting events and community festivals.

Last summer, the stadium hosted six concerts and Big Top plans to schedule seven in 2018. Stenman said the ultimate goal is 14. A soccer team could bring 18 to 20 home games per season to the stadium, he said. The Madison Radicals professional ultimate team plays about eight home games at the venue each year and will host the American Ultimate Disc League championship there in August.

Other sports tenants include Madison East High School football and soccer teams, Edgewood College soccer teams, UW-Madison lacrosse clubs and local soccer leagues.

Madison Parks Superintendent Eric Knepp emphasized that the city is not yet re-negotiating its deal with Big Top and that the first step is gathering community input at a neighborhood meeting Jan. 24, 7 p.m., hosted by Ald. Ledell Zellers, District 2, in the conference room at Festival Foods, 810 E. Washington Ave.

“We feel really good that the last couple years thousands more people have been able to enjoy and give purpose to a historic facility,” Knepp said. “I think it is evident that it is in the city's best interest to give properties that are historic we own to give them purpose.”

A ‘growing spectator sport’

Conor Caloia, chief operating officer of Big Top, said soccer is a rapidly growing spectator sport and residents of the evolving Capitol East District are strong candidates for a potential fan base.

“We think Breese is a great location to be connecting with the soccer enthusiasts,” Caloia said.

Breese Stevens Field opened in 1926 as a baseball stadium. It has hosted boxing matches, auto racing, track and field events, political rallies and even ice skating. The Wisconsin Badgers men's and women's soccer teams called Breese home before they moved to a campus facility in 1993.

Big Top’s current contract ends in 2022 with an option to renew through 2027. Stenman is proposing a 10- or 15-year lease, which he said would help lock down a soccer franchise. A longer timeline would allow for more improvements to be made at the stadium, as it has at Warner Park, Stenman said. 

Physical improvements such as upgrades to seating and locker rooms are needed to bring the stadium in compliance with soccer league standards.

“Basically, the city would make the investment in improvements for the facility, in theory, and we would sign a long-term lease and we would pay back a significant portion of that investment over the terms of the lease,” Stenman said.

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Stenman said he would also like to replace the public address system with one that more effectively keeps sound in the stadium and out of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Big Top Events is also proposing to amend its contract with the city to include a later ending time for events and allowing the sale of alcohol in private or ticketed spaces.

Knepp said any changes to the contract require a “balancing act” and that the activity at Breese Stevens is a result of a public/private partnership and not a privatization initiative.

“The focus is not a privatization contract to maximize the city's financial return,” Knepp said. “It’s trying to insulate the taxpayer to some extent, get the best deal we can, while also doing everything we can to promote a community asset for years to come.”

Knepp did not specify how much improvements would cost, but said any city funding would come from a blend of impact fees, general obligation bonding and possibly private contributions.

The proposed contract changes follow years of the city investing in the site. Since 2007, Madison has spent $4 million on rehabilitation and restoration improvements at Breese. The city most recently invested $1 million in 2014-15 for synthetic turf, which led directly to its contract with Big Top and a dramatic increase in events at the venue.

Madison’s Parks Division recently proposed adding a new concession stand and accessible public restroom facility.

“Even without a soccer team, we’ve known for years we were going to put a lot of money into the facility,” Knepp said.

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.