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Here's how Badgers football fans and businesses are welcoming back game-day celebrations
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Here's how Badgers football fans and businesses are welcoming back game-day celebrations

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Badgers fans attend practice

University of Wisconsin mascot Bucky Badger entertains fans at Camp Randall Stadium during a "Badgers are Back" football practice event Aug. 21. Madison businesses and residents saw revenue nosedive for the three home games the Badgers played behind closed doors in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are some absolutes in Peter Christianson’s world, at least when the University of Wisconsin football team is involved.

“The best day of the year is the first home game,” he said. “And the worst day of the year is the day after the bowl game is over.”

Christianson has held the same seat location under the press box in Camp Randall Stadium’s Section FF with his block of season tickets since 1974. He watched a lot of years of bad football from those seats at the front end.

He and tens of thousands of others didn’t even get that in 2020, when games were played largely behind closed doors because of the pandemic. The shutdown also took away all of the traditional game-day accompaniments — the tailgate parties, vibrancy on Regent Street and band performances.

Fans walk down Regent Street ahead of 2019 UW opener

A mounted badger atop a vehicle welcomes fans to a tailgate party along Regent Street on Sept. 7, 2019, before the start of UW's home opener against Central Michigan. The mascot belongs to Joe and Dee Balistreri of Madison who said they'd been displaying it prior to games for over 30 years. 

Camp Randall’s gates are back open this year, and the Badgers’ Saturday debut against Penn State is an experience fans and local businesses have been awaiting eagerly.

“I think it’ll be tremendously exciting for everybody,” said Christianson, a former Madison resident who this year moved to Pewaukee. “I think there’ll be a great roar from the crowd when the team takes the field.”

The only roars last year were digital ones blasted through the speakers. Some who live in the area around Camp Randall said it was was strangely quiet during Badgers home games when fans were shut out.

Nearby residents who charge $25 or more to park in yards lost out on that revenue. Businesses went without exposure to thousands. Fans lost connections to people they see only at pregame tailgates or around their longtime seats.

“It was weird last year having them play right down the road and not being able to watch them live,” said Marlow Hicks, a season ticket holder from Waunakee. “It was heartbreaking.”

Doug Carlson has lived in the Vilas Neighborhood near the stadium for around 20 years and noticed the odd quality of a Badgers game day without Badgers fans last year.

“It just had a little bit of an eerie feel,” he said. “It was almost like there was a ghost game going on.”

Bringing more than 70,000 fans through the neighborhoods around Camp Randall comes at a cost. Those who live near the stadium deal with extra trash and noise around their yards. UW heard complaints last year from nearby residents about the volume of the sound system reverberating off empty bleachers inside the stadium.

The flip side is the life that game days bring into the area. It’s on its way back.

“That first game of the year always adds an extra buzz and excitement to the neighborhood,” Carlson said. “It can be exhausting and sometimes by the time the last game is done everybody breathes a big sigh of relief. But it comes with the territory and is something that a majority of us look forward to and we missed last season.”

Hotels ready for fans to return

Badgers football is big business well beyond parking, tickets and concessions. A 2019 report produced for UW estimated that each home game carried a $16 million economic impact for the state.

Around $114 million for the Wisconsin economy is tied into home football games each year, according to the report by Econsult Solutions of Philadelphia. That supports 1,080 jobs.

Fans will be hungry and thirsty. They need a way to get to the game or a place to park if they drive. All of it adds up to revenue for Madison businesses and residents — something that took a nosedive for the three home games the Badgers played behind closed doors in 2020.

About 15% of those who attend games are overnight visitors, per the 2019 impact study. That generates $1.7 million in Madison hotel taxes beyond the revenue for the companies.

The six or seven weekends of home football games from September to November represent the best traffic of the year for hotels near campus and some in the suburbs.

Tom Ziarnik, general manager of DoubleTree by Hilton Madison Downtown, said his campus-area hotel usually sells out its 164-room allotment for both Friday and Saturday nights on home football weekends. Many of the bookings come from return customers when the rooms open up a year in advance, he said.

Badgers fans take in practice

Wisconsin football fans gather at Camp Randall Stadium Aug. 21 during a Badgers practice event. 

When fans weren’t allowed to attend Badgers games last year, it was another pandemic blow to a lodging industry that suffered big losses. Business was down about 85%, Ziarnik said, but the DoubleTree stayed open for the little business it attracted.

“We’re certainly going to be ready for the football games,” Ziarnik said. “Hopefully I’ll have some staff here to help.”

He said the DoubleTree has experienced the same difficulties recruiting and retaining housekeepers, cooks and servers that many service providers have reported nationally. But Ziarnik hoped that the return of students to UW would help turn around that.

Former UW football players like Jack Cichy and Beau Allen are always welcome back to practice, UW coach Paul Chryst says.

Football games mean more than just heads in beds for hotels.

“The bar’s busy, the restaurant stays busy,” said David Bleuer, general manager of the Madison Marriott West in Middleton. “Our banquet facilities get used, whether that’s an away team or some of the groups that come in to assist with the game, production crews, that type of stuff.”

The Marriott had some visiting teams staying for games last season, but Bleuer reported that significantly less than half of the 292 guest rooms were occupied on football weekends in 2020.

What’s coming back this year?

“It’s very lively for sure,” Bleuer said in describing what a typical Badgers home football weekend is like in his hotel’s common spaces. “Lots of noise, lots of hooting and hollering generally. It’s a fun atmosphere.

“Obviously there’s a lot of excitement. If you’ve been to a Badgers game, that energy leaves the stadium and comes with them here, especially if they win.”

Badgers fans capture practice action

Badgers fans capture the action at a Wisconsin football practice event Aug. 21 at Camp Randall Stadium. 

‘People want to gather’

The game-day experience gets started hours before kickoff along Regent Street and at tailgate parties in the area fanning out from the stadium.

The Badger Bash pregame event at Union South is back on, with UW’s marching band and spirit squad. Other big events have been in the works for months.

State Journal beat reporter Colten Bartholomew and columnist Jim Polzin discuss the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12’s alliance and what it means for the Badgers, break down the cornerbacks, safeties and specialists, and Big Ten picks are back!

Event Essentials, which rents tents, chairs and other supplies for gatherings, stopped taking orders through the end of October as of mid-August, sales manager Robert Copley said. That’s mainly due to the Windsor company’s employment levels, he said, but also gives a look into the public appetite for events.

The 180-degree turn in event planning from the lows of 2020 to what Copley has seen in 2021 has been an “eye-opening experience,” he said. Sales are exceeding budgeted goals from even before the pandemic.

“People want to gather,” Copley said. “People enjoy that personal interaction. To not have it for 18 months, there’s a lot of pent-up demand. We want to get together again.”

Wisconsin head football coach Paul Chryst touches on what he likes about the team, learning from last season, the NIL era and playoff expansion.

Nowhere in Madison do people gather in larger numbers than Camp Randall.

“Tailgates are back,” Copley said. “At least for now.”

Businesses had an eye on the rise in COVID-19 cases in Dane County in the lead-up to football season. So have fans.

Hicks said he missed the atmosphere inside Camp Randall during a game, like hugging strangers after a big play.

“If you would have asked me a couple weeks ago, I would have been totally fine,” Hicks said in response to a question about the pandemic. “I felt like I was cool, I was vaccinated, I was ready to go. I still strongly feel that way. So I personally am ready to go. Does it make me a little weary? Yeah, there’s something in the back of my mind. But as long as I can be as safe as I personally can, I’m OK with it.”

UW is requiring fans to wear masks when they’re in indoor public areas at the stadium and recommending them to have a face covering while seated. Dane County put an indoor mask mandate back in place that will impact businesses that had been expecting big sales numbers this football season.

Billy Van Wie, one of the owners of both Sconnie Bar and Jordan’s Big 10 Pub on Regent Street, was projecting one of the best seasons ever for the establishments because of pent-up demand after last year. Both have outdoor beer gardens on game days to complement an indoor space, and those days produce the year’s best sales numbers by far.

UW Band entertains fans on Regent Street

Members of the UW Marching Band’s drum line, including Jimmy Forman, right, entertain fans at The Red Zone bar on Regent Street before Wisconsin’s 2019 home opener against Central Michigan.

As the county’s order went into effect Aug. 19, Van Wie still was optimistic but a touch leery about what could be around the corner with the pandemic.

“I think it’s still going to be a good year unless there’s more changes or there’s a spike in what’s going on that forces them to make changes on how many people can come to Camp Randall and to the beer gardens,” he said.

Variant causes concern

Some fans are hesitant to return to a full Camp Randall with the delta variant sending case numbers upward. Season-ticket holder John Uhler said a capacity crowd is a bad idea and that spectators should be masked and distanced regardless of vaccination status.

“If we’re not careful now, by the end of the season we may be playing in an empty stadium,” he said.

The lure of the chance to resume the experiences missed last year is strong, however. Chicago-area Badgers fans Bill Chapman, John Gable and Tony Dombrow met for dinners this summer in part to plan out the tailgates that they host for friends atop a parking ramp adjacent the stadium.

The menu varies with the scheduled kickoff time — egg casserole is a popular choice for 11 a.m. games — but the bar in the back of Chapman’s car always produces bloody marys.

“Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s when I was a kid growing up, my parents’ friends always tailgated over in the Ag campus,” said Chapman, a walk-on Badgers defensive lineman in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “I said when I get older I want to be the guy that hosts the tailgates. So that’s kind of been a lifelong dream for me.”

Bill and Kathy Chapman, from Libertyville, Illinois, have 10 tickets on the 50-yard line in Section T that they share with friends. They have eight Penn State fans on the guest list for their season-opening tailgate. Past events have featured spouses of the visiting team’s coaches.

Games that start at 2:30 p.m. are Bill Chapman’s favorite because they allow the tailgate to have pregame lunch and postgame dinner at traditional times atop the parking garage. It’s not a stretch, however, to say that a game could start at 3 a.m. and there would be a decent tailgating scene around Camp Randall.

“We lived through a pretty lean time period in Wisconsin football history, especially in the late ‘80s when we didn’t win many games and tailgating was kind of the highlight,” Chapman said. “So we made a point of perfecting the whole tailgate process. At least that was something to celebrate. ... We’re very excited to get back at it this year.”


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