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  • Peter Miller

Popular & deeply important: Recent successes of UW sports have elevated the program in WI and beyond

University of Wisconsin fans who were around Madison before the early 1990s likely recall an athletic department that struggled to consistently compete in the two largest revenue-producing sports. Between 1963 and 1993, the football team went through five coaches and had an overall record of 95 wins and 151 losses. The team failed to win a single Big Ten title during that time. Camp Randall Stadium crowds were small and often more interested in the UW Marching Band than the football team. The basketball program was arguably even worse (and for a longer period), failing to qualify for a single NCAA tournament between 1948 and 1995. The team finished with losing records for 15 of the 20 seasons spanning 1975-1995.


Were one to have predicted the run of success that was to follow this long stretch of futility in Wisconsin, he or she would have been called foolish. Wisconsin’s athletic department went from futile to elite in less than twenty years. Its streak of qualifying for both a bowl game in football and the NCAA tournament in basketball reached 15 years in 2016, the longest streak in NCAA history (second best was Texas’ 11 year streak).[1] No other school in the country currently has a streak of more than four years. Only three teams in the entire country (Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State) have won more football games than Wisconsin since 2013 and, up until the end of 2018, the Badger Men’s basketball team finished in the top four of the Big Ten Conference for 17 straight seasons. A Spring 2016 story by CBS Sports called Wisconsin’s story “one of the overlooked and truly unexpected rises to prominence in the history of collegiate athletics.” This rise to prominence includes more than football and basketball, as both men’s and women’s teams have thrived at Wisconsin. From track and field, cross country, and hockey to volleyball, soccer, and rowing, sustained conference and national success has become the norm in Madison. Some outside experts identify UW’s broad-based athletic department as the best in the country.[2]


Indicators of the department’s excellence have grown to include more than wins and losses on the field. UW student-athletes have achieved at elite academic levels. During the 2016-17 academic year, more than a third of them (331) were named to the Dean’s List, Dean’s Honor List, or Dean’s High Honor List and 215 were named to the “All-Big Ten” academic team. Other schools are often critiqued for clustering athletes into a few areas of study, but UW student-athletes are spread across 92 different majors. Collectively, UW teams compare favorably with other institutions. The football team’s academic progress rate (APR) has been among the top five in the country for five straight years. The only other schools in the country to join UW in this accomplishment are Duke, Northwestern, and Stanford. Along with football, UW soccer, tennis, volleyball, golf, and hockey teams all received recognition for academic achievement that is in the top ten percent in the nation in their sports over recent years.


The broad academic success of UW student-athletes is relatively well known. Media lists of programs that achieve at the highest levels on and off the field usually include Wisconsin. Far fewer people recognize the extent to which the athletic department recruits, supports, and succeeds with students from traditionally marginalized backgrounds. Whereas the rest of campus struggles to recruit and support students of color and students from economically disadvantaged homes, the athletic department thrives. They provide students with a tailored array of academic and social services and rich team-based peer networks. As a result, 73% of student-athletes who are classified as “high-risk admits” [3] between 2009 and 2012 graduated. And from the pool of high-risk students, African Americans graduated at a rate of 75%. [4] Athletics is not only one of the most substantial levers for increasing diversity in the student body, it provides a model of student support and success from which other units on campus can learn.


The Wisconsin athletic department’s 25-year span of thriving has fueled a parallel popularity growth within the state. Wisconsin has less than six million residents, which is a smaller population than all but three other Big Ten states. Its state economy is not among the 20 largest in the country. Much of the state is rural, composed of a patchwork of tight-knit, hard-working farming communities that are hours away from Madison. Yet Wisconsin fans turn out to support their teams at the highest of levels. During the 2016-17 academic year, Wisconsin averaged almost 80,000 fans per football game (16th in the country), more than 17,000 basketball fans (6th in the country and first in the Big Ten), and over 10,000 hockey fans (2nd in the country) per game. And, over the past two years, Wisconsin is one of only five programs in the country with multiple women’s teams in the top five in total attendance. Its volleyball team was third nationally with an average attendance of nearly 6,000 per game (third in the country) and, along with playing to near capacity in many games, its women’s hockey team drew an NCAA single-game record of over 15,000 fans to one game in January, 2017. One writer suggested that such attendance figure reveal a deeper truth that “Badgers sports are an integral part of not only the university and alumni communities but also the social fabric of the state.”[5]



The Wisconsin volleyball team has achieved unprecedented success in recent years and draws large crowds for every home game.

The popularity of Wisconsin sports can be sensed at any one of the venues I referenced above or by driving from border to border to see Badger signs and apparel. It can also be seen in Public Policy Polling where, as politicians and other public figures drew paltry approval ratings of less than 20%, UW athletic director Barry Alvarez was seen favorably by 71% of the population.[6]And a random survey of all Wisconsin voters in 2015 found that 52% of voters in the entire state identify themselves as fans of Wisconsin athletics.[7]


More than just popularity, my project indeed revealed a deeper importance of Wisconsin athletics. I have been involved with athletics throughout the country and at a variety of levels over the years, but, with the possible exception of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ influence in Western Pennsylvania, have not witnessed such a close intersection between an athletic program and the individual/collective identities of those around it. I have interviewed various universities’ leaders over the past several years and, although some of their schools have loyal fan bases, none of the other schools seemed close to Wisconsin in having near uniform support in their states across all boundaries of age, race, geography, and socioeconomic status. This is not to say that other universities do not have large bodies of support. But for alums and non-alums, the young and old, the rural and urban, Wisconsin emerges more clearly as a primary source of social cohesionin its state than any other place I have learned about. Most university leaders have, at one time or another, referred to athletics as the “front porch” of their schools – the place that is most visible to outsiders. But we should consider something more – that for many residents in the state, athletics is not only the most familiar and favorable aspect of the university, it brings their communities together, providing profound meaning and contour to their shared lives.[8] Upon learning that I am not a native resident of Wisconsin, multiple people I spoke with emphasized that “you just can’t understand how important this (Badger athletics) is here.”


The daily newspapers in Wisconsin towns reveal the centrality of the University’s athletics program. As I have moved forward learning about UW Athletics, I find these papers (and not just the sports sections) to be an interesting supportive artifact. Wisconsin teams’ personalities and accomplishments permeate life rhythms throughout the state. The 2013 obituary of E.J. Plesko, a former Madison resident, described his love of the Badgers and described that E.J. “was never more proud or more excited than to be in attendance at the Rose Bowl in 1994, 1999, and 2000 to see Barry Alvarez take the Badger football program to new heights.” At first it seemed unusual to me that an obituary – a brief accounting of what was most important in one’s life – would mention Wisconsin Rose Bowl victories as a most cherished memory alongside those of loved ones. But a quick search of the Wisconsin State Journal database suggested otherwise, revealing that in 2016 alone, UW athletics were mentioned in 693 different obituaries. And in all other newspapers during that year, 2,968 obituaries identified Badger sports as a core aspect of a life lived.


My interviews and observations in this regard have empirical support. In her critically acclaimed book, The Politics of Resentment, Professor Katherine Cramer describes a “rural consciousness” around economics and elitism throughout the state. She found many residents in small Wisconsin towns to be skeptical, even resentful of the University. Faculty were widely perceived to be “lazy,” “liberal,” and “elitist.” The researcher noted that residents typically suggested the best part of the University is football, basketball, and, more generally, “sports.” Cramer reflected on these findings:

Is it problematic that the first thing that typically comes to mind when thinking about what a state’s flagship university does well is sports? Perhaps many employees on campus outside the athletic department would be more comforted if the most common response were research or teaching undergraduates. However, sports reach people in a visceral way that research is not likely to.[9]


UW-Madison makes countless contributions to the state, but its sports teams are among the most recognized by residents.

Cramer’s findings should be closely considered. UW is a premier land grant institution that immeasurably advances the good of the state in many ways. But large portions of its residents feel alienated from the campus. Even so, they hold tight to the University’s athletics.


I should note an aspect of the “popularity and importance” findings that have clearly emerged from my interactions over the years: Wisconsin residents do not identify with their teams only because they win, but, nearly as importantly, because of how they win. I have heard several common themes in this vein. First, Wisconsin teams consistently have large representation of in-state student-athletes, which heightens connection and shared-identity throughout the state. Second, a “humble, hard-working, respectable, Midwestern approach” to competing was consistently highlighted as “the Wisconsin Way.” Wisconsin fans trust and admire their coaches and student-athletes. Third, Wisconsin’s program is respected for its developmental focus. That is, rather than seeking to recruit just blue chip high school players with the highest ratings and statistics, Wisconsin coaches aim for the right fit. They seek student-athletes whose character attributes jive with the Wisconsin Way – and who, with quality teaching and support, become successful students and contributors to elite teams. Finally, the fiscal responsibility and contributions of the athletic department are clearly admired – especially by leaders who understand the economics of college sports. In a broader NCAA environment where programs commonly lose millions of dollars per year and/or develop in ways that are inconsistent with broader university and community values, Wisconsin’s athletic department makes a significant financial contribution to other parts of campus and, even when it grows, manages to remain largely attuned to “Midwestern” mores.


Notes:

[1]For comparison sake, the University of Minnesota has had back-to-back seasons of qualifying for both the NCAA Tournament and a bowl game only once in school history.

[2]Gonzalez, J. (2016, March 16) Is Wisconsin the best athletic program in the country? Badgers have results/streak to argue their case. Minneapolis Star Tribune.

[3]Students who do not meet traditional standardized test score or grade-point average thresholds are given extensive review by admissions officials before being admitted.

[4]Refer to report by Tiedt, Groth, and Rickelman (2017) for more detail.

[5]Beidelschies, J. (2017, January 19). Wisconsin is the Place for Women’s Sports. SB Nation: Bucky’s 5thQuarter.Retrieved from https://www.buckys5thquarter.com/2017/1/19/13993148/wisconsin-badgers-womens-sports-attendance-hockey-volleyball

[6]Among the very few current/past personalities or items with higher approval ratings in the poll than Alvarez in recent years are Abraham Lincoln, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and “cheese.”

[7]By way of contrast, 35% of Illinois voters said they “don’t care about college sports” and 33% identified as University of Illinois fans. The same survey in Minnesota did not even include the University of Minnesota as an option. It only gave respondents an option to identify as Twins or Vikings fans.

[8]One could describe this as the “beneficent influence” associated with the Wisconsin Idea. The Wisconsin Idea was born when, in 1904, University President Van Hise declared: “I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the University reaches every home in the state.”

[9]Refer to Cramer, K (2012). The distance from public institutions of higher education: Public perceptions of UW-Madison.Wiscape Working Paper, 1-45.