Badger football returns this week with a glow from last season's conference title and Rose Bowl appearance, the electricity of a night crowd, the promise of an accomplished quarterback — and the first $100 game ticket in school history.
Yes, face value of tickets tops out at $49, but for the best seats in sections nearest the 50-yard line, the UW athletic department increased the mandatory Badger Fund "donation" this season from $250 to $400 per seat, a 60 percent hike.
That required $400-per-seat annual donation adds more than $57 per game for each of the seven home games, and, voila, the $100 seat. (More precisely, $99.14, which is the $42 ticket cost to season ticket holders plus one-seventh of $400.)
In our cover story this week, Todd Finkelmeyer explores how UW football may be bigger than ever, but asks whether scandals like those at the University of Miami and Ohio State University have cast a pall over college football. Or, as the article asks, has college football simply become too big to fail?
That's debatable, but what seems clear is that UW has chosen to push major new costs onto its best customers during an awful economic climate and at a time of reduced income for many fans who are public employees.
Primarily as a result of increased mandatory donation levels, Badger Fund gifts for football, men's basketball and men's hockey increased from $6 million in 2010 to $8.9 million this year, according to Justin Doherty, an associate athletic director.
Badger Fund information provided by Doherty shows that fans must pay from $100 to $400 per seat per season for about 38,000 Camp Randall football seats; from $50 to $300 per seat per season for about 7,400 men's basketball seats at the Kohl Center; and from $25 to $50 for about 3,600 men's hockey tickets, also at the Kohl Center. Badger Fund donations are 80 percent tax-deductible.
Despite major increases in required giving, more than 99 percent of football ticket holders renewed this season, according to athletic director Barry Alvarez.
Maybe the best seats are indeed that valuable. A check of the StubHub online ticket site last week listed 136 seats in a prime 50-yard-line section for the Oct. 1 Nebraska game — by far the season's marquee event — that were priced from $388 to $827 each. Tickets there had already sold for between $399 and $589 each.
Moreover, there is a prospect more intimidating than significant Badger Fund increases. It's called "reseating," as in losing first-refusal rights to seat locations in a seating free-for-all that rewards big donors. A UW website chart says four Big Ten schools have used reseating in some form, but UW describes the approach as more "aggressive" than is warranted and Doherty said in an email, "At this time we did not feel it was an appropriate next step."
So how will people feel about breaking the $100 ticket barrier?
Those historically offended by the money and influence of college sports will probably call this the latest illustration of how out of control it has all become.
Another group will point out they love Badgers sports and are slowly being priced out of the in-person experience, but will pay up while they can because the alternative is losing their seats forever.
Ardent fans will argue that Badger tickets are not a tax, they are a choice, and if you can't stand the financial heat, get out of the kitchen. The Badgers used to be a loser, they will say, a perennial doormat. We're winners now, and to win you have to have money to play with the big boys.
I think I know Badger fanatics. I have had football season tickets since the 1980s and basketball season tickets for more than a decade.
On the flip side, I know the wrath of Bucky fans. As a Wisconsin State Journal editor in 2000, I was on the team that broke the so-called Shoe Box story, which brought sanctions to the UW football program. We got lots of feedback, not much of which was about journalistic service. My favorite note, paraphrased, was: "Why don't you rename your damn newspaper the Michigan State Journal?"
Pat Richter, the former UW athletic director who lured Alvarez from Notre Dame as football coach before many current students were born, is candid and philosophical about the landscape.
"I come from a consumer products background," Richter told Finkelmeyer in an interview. "And like at Oscar Mayer (where he worked before joining UW), if the demand is there, people will buy hot dogs. If the demand isn't there and sales go down, the prices go down."
"So the places which don't have people clamoring to get into the stadium, the price goes down. That's not the case here. It's supply and demand," he said.
But, Richter added, there may be a tipping point.
"Television has gotten so good, the definition is so great, that I do think it makes it easier for people to say, 'You know, I think I'll pass and stay home and watch the game.' Even though I still go to the games, I do like watching games on TV because you get replay and so much information," Richter added.
"So I do think at some point more people will start looking at what they're paying for tickets and say, 'Wow, I can buy a big TV and pay my annual cable bill if I don't go to the game and just stay home and watch it,'" Richter said.
"I also think this program has had so much success that some might say, 'I've enjoyed a good ride but I've seen the good times and they were great, but now I'll do something else.' So you have to be really careful with how you balance all those things."
In interviews, Alvarez emphasizes the comparatively low face value of UW tickets versus other schools, a spin that downplays total cost fueled by mandatory donations.
"My biggest concern is the economics of this business," Alvarez told Finkelmeyer. "With the economy as it is and us being a self-sustaining department, I've been very sensitive about raising ticket prices. It's a real concern and a balancing act, but our fans have always been very generous."
Alvarez was asked whether the almost 100 percent renewal and fan loyalty surprises him. He responded, "Not as long as we keep winning."
In the old days, one could pay $30 for a decent seat at Camp Randall Stadium with inexpensive concessions, a 1 p.m. kickoff (before television-dictated start times) and a decent parking spot (before Badger Fund giving determined parking status, too).
And, most Saturdays, you would see the home team lose.