Forward Madison FC had to move home games 70 miles to the east last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Madison Mallards canceled their season altogether.
The teams are coming back home for 2021. The third-division pro soccer Forward Madison team and summer collegiate baseball Mallards announced Thursday their home games will return to traditional sites this year.
For Forward Madison, that means USL League One games at Breese Stevens Field starting May 15. The Mallards will play at Warner Park beginning May 31.
“We’re excited to return to our home,” Forward Madison co-owner and COO Conor Caloia said.
The returns were enabled by the new public health order that went into effect Wednesday amid a steady decrease in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Dane County and an increase in vaccinations. The latest directive from Public Health Madison and Dane County removed a cap on the number of people allowed at outdoor events, which had been set at 500.
The only restraint imposed in the new order is to limit numbers so that distancing can be maintained between people not from the same household, which means Forward Madison and the Mallards will host games with much smaller crowds. Specific capacity and other attendance details haven’t been announced.
“We are working on an interpretation of the new orders to get our fans safely seated,” Caloia said. “We appreciate our fans’ patience as these orders change and we continue to adapt to them.”
Caloia said under the current order, Forward Madison could accommodate 800 to 1,000 fans at home games, where the normal capacity at Breese Stevens Field is 5,000. This would combine already existing seating with new, temporary seating arrangements to get as many seats filled as possible while staying within public health guidelines, he said, but a new public health order before games start could change any planning done now.
Mallards president Vern Stenman said the new order “gives us enough confidence” to make home games feasible from a business standpoint. He said details are still being worked out but hopes to safely fill 30-35% of Warner Park’s 6,750 capacity under the current order.
Stenman also said it is “reasonable to think a lot will change” in terms of public health guidelines with the start of the season still seven weeks away.
“We’re curious if over the next month there will be some more loosening regarding outdoor events and people that are vaccinated,” he said. “We’re optimistic that things will get better, especially from a vaccination perspective.”
The teams’ announcements came as the state Department of Health Services reported 1,046 new COVID-19 cases Thursday — the largest daily case total since Feb. 11 — and as concern grows over variants of the virus and many of the new cases coming from people age 18 and younger.
Public Health Madison and Dane County said in a statement there are no plans to change the current order allowing for the return of home games.
“We feel strongly that outdoor environments are safer than indoor ones to prevent the spread of disease,” the statement said.
The department said it will be “closely” monitoring whether the rise in new cases will lead to more hospitalizations or deaths.
Forward Madison plans to require masks to be worn at Breese Stevens Field except while fans are in their seats, distanced from other groups, Caloia said. Season ticket holders will be given priority for a limited number of seats, he said.
The soccer team debuted at Breese Stevens Field in 2019 and played to a league-leading attendance of 4,292. But a pandemic-delayed and shortened 2020 season had home games in Wauwatosa because Dane County public health orders didn’t allow sports competition.
Those same limitations caused the Mallards to call off their participation in the 2020 Northwoods League campaign. The Mallards routinely lead attendance rankings for summer collegiate baseball with averages of more than 6,000 at Warner Park.
The Mallards hosted drive-in movies and other distanced events at the stadium last summer.
“Part of summer in Madison is enjoying the old ballgame at the Duck Pond,” Stenman said. “It has been a tough year for us and our community and we can’t wait to bring everyone back together around America’s pastime at the ballgame this summer once again.”