Ironman triathletes spent all day Sunday — and part of Monday, for some — swimming, biking and running unreasonable distances around the Madison area. In subtle mockery of their sacrifice, I spent Friday and Saturday completing a much more reasonable triathlon: a spectator triathlon.
As professional team executives and athletic directors around the country grapple with declining attendance, Madison teams are admirably packing the stands, even as family commitments, youth sports and other distractions fill up calendars. Madison is a busy place these days, and that extends to the sports world, where it’s possible for fans to jam multiple games into a weekend.
Summer was putting up a solid argument for ignoring the arrival of fall last Friday night. A bike ride through downtown Madison featured views of a silvery Lake Monona, along with an occasional mouthful of bugs. Still, biking is a good way to get to University of Wisconsin volleyball games, which have been drawing crowds to the Field House — and cars to the nearby parking-challenged neighborhood — for several years.
The plan was to kick off my Madison Spectator Triathlon watching the much-heralded Badgers and their All-American superstar, junior blocker Dana Rettke, take on Baylor. But Rettke and her teammates, picked to win the Big Ten at the beginning of the season, had no answer for Baylor senior hitter Yossiana Pressley, who elicited gasps and groans from the crowd as she fired 31 kills, leading the Bears to a four-set victory.
For the second year, fans are allowed into some sections of the Field House’s upper deck.Thanks to that and a six-season run of winning records and deep NCAA tournament runs, the Badgers consistently draw crowds of over 7,000. And unlike the sedate supporters who attend basketball games at the Kohl Center, volleyball fanatics get to their feet quickly and make plenty of noise.
But the loss to Baylor was the Badgers’ second straight at home — they lost to Marquette Thursday night — and they dropped in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll from a ranking of fourth in the nation to ninth. Minnesota, Nebraska and Penn State are other Big Ten teams in the top ten, indicating the schedule is not going to get any easier for this team.
"It's good that this happened early in the season,” senior libero Tiffany Clark said Friday. “Now we know where our weaknesses are and now we can grind on them in practice.”
Wisconsin hits the road this week to play South Carolina and Clemson before returning to the Field House to face Washington on Sept. 19 (8 p.m., FS1).
Leg two of the Madspectathlon was the main event: Saturday’s home opener for the Badgers football team against Central Michigan.
It has been well chronicled how completely Madison is taken over by tailgating fans on Badgers game days, and the spectacle of pregame festivities remains a sight to behold. It was the accoutrements — smoking grills, various target games, parking lot beer gardens, elaborate buffets — that drove Saturday’s excitement, because it definitely wasn’t the prospect of a decent game.
Central Michigan finished 1-11 in 2018, good for dead last in the Mid-American Conference (a game behind Kent State, Wisconsin’s opponent on Oct. 5). And it had the misfortune to face a Wisconsin team that seems intent on not repeating its disappointing 8-5 record of a year ago.
In winning 61-0, the Badgers amassed 599 yards to CMU’s 58. That’s really the only analysis required of this game. Yes, quarterback Jack Coan showed a command of the offense, a deft passing touch and seemed to solidify his spot as the starter. But if the conference opener against Michigan on Sept. 21 will be the real test for Coan and his teammates, Saturday’s massacre was an open-book, multiple-choice quiz.
Still, the first game of the season offers other opportunities for entertainment in the stadium. Saturday marked the debut of new marching band director Corey Pompey, who made the most of an abbreviated halftime to cover songs by the Killers, Beyonce and Adele. It was a revelation for fans who have endured numerous Rat Pack, Andrew Lloyd Webber and British Invasion medleys over the years. The band looked very much the same, but sounded fresh. Let’s see what Pompey does with a full halftime on Sept. 21.
Pompey’s program was shortened to accommodate the introduction of a new class for the UW Athletic Hall of Fame, allowing fan favorites like Jessie Vetter (women’s hockey), Trent Jackson (men’s basketball), Joe Thomas (football) and others to bask in applause from 75,000 fans.
I sat next to a man who spent the game pointing out sights to his 10-year-old grandson, most of them on the field, many around the stadium. That Norman Rockwell experience isn’t available when watching a game on TV.
The Forward Madison soccer squad has been operating since the spring without feeling much competition from UW sports or busy family schedules. The novelty of the first-year professional team’s branding efforts, improvements to Breese Stevens Field and a Saturday-heavy schedule have allowed the club to build an impressive fan base. In 13 games, Forward is averaging nearly 4,300 fans, tops among the 10 USL League One teams.
The Flamingos have been moderately successful on the field, as well, accumulating a 9-9-6 record, good enough for fourth place in the league and a shot at making the playoffs with four regular-season league games left.
Saturday night, South Georgia Tormenta traveled to Breese, where they were met by several fans toting autographed 2x4 boards, the signature prop of legendary professional wrestler “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, who greeted fans at the game.
Forward plays an entertaining style of soccer and several players — Don Smart, Christian Diaz, J.C. Banks, Josiel Nunez — are deft ball handlers capable of generating cheers with their footwork, even if they subsequently give up possession. And even though they spend a lot of time in the opponents’ half of the field, they rarely score more than one goal (only eight times in 24 games) and are rarely safe from an equalizer goal.
That’s what happened Saturday. Brazilian forward Paulo Jr. put the Flamingos up, 1-0, with a header off a fantastic cross from Banks in the 24th minute. But they could not add to the lead and South Georgia put in a tying goal in the 80th minute. A win, and three points in the standings, would have moved Madison into a much more comfortable third place.
Most of the fans that streamed out of Breese 10 minutes later seemed relatively unconcerned by the result and perhaps unaware of its playoff implications. Unlike Friday’s weather, there was a bite in the air and people were pulling on sweatshirts, perhaps thinking ahead to what they’d do on a Sunday with no Packers game scheduled.