The Badger State Games, once one of the nation's largest Olympic-style amateur sports festivals, are being discontinued after a 26-year run in which more than 350,000 participants ages 3 to 85 competed in events ranging from track and field to archery, and ice hockey to skiing.
The move, announced Tuesday morning, comes as part of a restructuring by the non-profit Wisconsin Sports Development Corporation, which oversaw the Summer and Winter Games.
The WSDC attributed the demise of the Badger State Games to declining participation and the evaporation of the corporate sponsorships that underwrote the competitions.
"The marketplace has become saturated with other athletic organizations and events," said Dan Doyle, interim president and chief executive officer of WSDC, in a statement.
"It is time to yield to market forces beyond our control and explore new ways to serve the sports marketplace for the benefit of the State of Wisconsin."
Madison hosted the Summer Games from their inception in 1985 through 2008, when the WSDC moved the competition to the Fox Cities in an attempt to rejuvenate the event.
The relocation was made possible by a $180,000, three-year grant from the Fox Cities Sports Authority that expired after this year's competition in late June. The city of Madison had provided between $15,000 and $20,000 annually, and the Greater Madison Visitors and Convention Bureau balked at a WSDC request to increase that contribution considerably.
At its peak, the Summer Games reportedly drew about 10,000 competitors annually — which ranked it in the top five among the more than 40 states in the National Congress of State Games — and in many years, more than one-fifth of the entrants hailed from Dane County.
Much of the credit for the event's success has been attributed to former Madison La Follette and Middleton coach and University of Wisconsin administrator Otto Breitenbach, who was appointed executive director in 1988 when the Badger State Games was awash in red ink and little-known outside the area. He quickly expanded its reach and resources, and created a successful model before stepping down in 1997.
The competition remained highly popular into the last decade before interest began to ebb. The 2008 version drew just 8,300 participants and had no opening ceremonies due to construction at Mansfield Stadium.
In a 2010 interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, then-WSDC president Ron Vincent said the recession hampered fundraising efforts in the Fox Cities, and he expressed regret about the decision to leave Madison.
"We're a complete nonprofit organization and a lot of people don't realize that. They think the Badger State Games have been around for so long they're this successful, cash-flow event. We fight every year to make sure the sponsorship is there. Our mission is participation, getting kids and athletes (involved) as economically as we can."
The Winter Games were held in Wausau and the surrounding area for 22 years until the Wausau/Central Wisconsin Visitors and Convention Bureau announced in 2010 that it would no longer host the event, ceasing its $76,000 annual payment. The 2011 event was held at venues throughout the state.
The Winter Games drew a record 6,391 participants in 2001, but had slipped to approximately 4.300 by 2009.
The WSDC is exploring a new mission as a statewide authority that facilitates sports-related tourism, Doyle said, while noting that sports authorities in Wausau and the Fox Cities have displayed interest in continuing some of the athletic competitions under different guises.
Because it will no longer organize events, WSDC is attempting to sell or transfer ownership of its other holdings, including the popular Paddle and Portage, a 3-mile canoe race held each July in Madison that includes a portage over the Isthmus with paddling legs in Lake Mendota and Lake Monona.
Also on the market is the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame, which was created in 1951 to honor outstanding sports figures in state history and is located in Milwaukee. Inductees are heralded by plaques attached to the outside of U.S. Cellular Arena.
Franklyn Gimbel, chair of the Wisconsin Center District, which owns and operates the U.S. Cellular Arena, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Tuesday that it's in his group's interest that the Walk of Fame be maintained but that a managing group should take over ownership of the facility and the annual Hall of Fame dinner.
Lighten Up Wisconsin, a health and wellness program, will be transferred to Clarity Technology Group of Madison.
Shape Up Badger Kids, a one-day event held in elementary and junior high schools each May in conjunction with with National Health and Fitness Week, will be discontinued.