Shane Ryan hawked Cokes in the cheap seats of Camp Randall Stadium during Wisconsin Badgers football games last season, an exhausting but thrilling first job for the 12-year-old.
When the Badgers kick off their season on Saturday, there will be no Cokes — and no Ryan. The university’s new vendor, Learfield Levy Foodservice LLC, will sell exclusively soft drinks from the Dr Pepper Snapple Group and has stopped a decades-long practice of hiring local middle schoolers and high schoolers to sell them in the stands.
The change means a program that provided a first job for generations of Madison teens — and a way into football games that would otherwise be out of reach financially — is over.
“How sad is that?” asked Kelly Ryan, Shane’s mother. “I think the university does fairly well financially and can leave some things alone that have a commitment to the community.”
Mike Lipp, the athletic director at Madison West High School, has taught in the area for four decades and has seen many students enjoy the program.
“These guys are coming in not knowing the culture making a whole seismic shift,” Lipp said. “I hope it works for them.”
The W Club, a nonprofit group that ran concessions operations since 1962, sponsored the program that put the youths in the aisles.
It changed this year because the new vendor’s company policy requires all employees to be at least 18 years old, said a spokeswoman for Levy Restaurants of Chicago, one half of the Learfield Levy group.
“I do know that Levy’s policy is that they want adults running their operation,” said Justin Doherty, UW associate athletic director for external relations. “We weren’t intending for any consequence like this to happen but at the same time this is the company we chose and we’re happy with them.”
Since winning the bid in mid-July, expected to be worth up to $24 million over the next decade to the university, Levy has advertised the hawker jobs on craigslist and to UW-Madison students, among other places. It’s unknown how much interest they’ve received.
What is clear: The familiar scene of area youths walking up and down the aisles wearing yellow “VENDOR” bibs while carrying trays of soda, water and peanuts ,and screaming their sales pitches over the cacophonous stadium noise is no more.
“It’s something you take for granted,” said Rob Andringa, a UW-Madison Athletic Board member who hawked briefly as a boy and has attended games at Camp Randall since the early 1970s. “You always noticed them but just didn’t think much about them. They’ve been a constant.”
For youths in recent years, job requirements were simple:
Be at least 12 years old. Pick up a work permit from your school for $10. Wear the yellow top issued to you. Show up for at least six games a year. Arrive two hours early.
Hawk with a smile.
The pay was commission-based with tips — top earners brought home a bit more than $100 a game — and it came with the added bonus of watching games inside the bowl once the sellling was done in the fourth quarter.
Shane started last year a bit shy but quickly learned there were tips to be earned the louder he yelled and the crazier his hats.
A red-and-white punk rocker wig and a Badger hat with fuzzy ears were his go-tos. He greeted the fans in the nether reaches, many of them older season-ticket holders, and tried to make them feel like family.
One game last season, a woman way up in “the nosebleeds” heard his singsongy pitch and called out for a Diet Coke. Shane had only the real kind left and apologized. The woman held firm: diet or nothing.
The boy hoofed it down the steps, swapped a Coke for a Diet Coke in the concourse and trekked back up to the top of the stadium to give the woman her soda. She handed him a $20 bill.
“Keep the change,” she said. It added up to a $16.50 tip.
“It was crazy when she gave me the money,” said the eighth-grader at St. Maria Goretti. “Sometimes I’d be like, ‘Are you sure you want me to keep the change? This is a lot of money!’”
Tim O’Rourke started as a vendor in 1973 while a freshman at now-closed Holy Name Seminary.
“By the time I got to high school, (vending) just seemed like a cool thing to do,” said the 54-year-old.
He hawked for three years at a time when sneaking booze into the stadium was more widely practiced.
He sold the Cokes; fans mixed in the hard stuff. The most he ever made was $8 a game — tipping wasn’t allowed then — but he enjoyed the experience.
“I think it was a good job for a lot of kids,” he said. “I never minded it one bit.”