Wisconsin Baseball: Facts, Myths, and Can it Make a Comeback?

Inside the Wisconsin fanbase there may not be a more contentious and highly charged subject than that of Badger baseball. While watching the likes of Stony Brook and Kent State make their trips to Omaha for the College World Series earlier this week it got me to thinking about May 10, 1991 and the loss of Wisconsin baseball.  

Wisconsin baseball

Of course this is a topic that seems to creep up nearly every year around these times and for good reason. Wisconsin is the only school in the Big Ten to not have a baseball program, it’s also a program that was around for 117 years of play before being dropped following the 1991 season.  

However, what seems to be happening with the distance from that decision is a lot of myth and hyperbole about just what happened and why Badger baseball isn’t back as of yet.  

These days it’s almost taken as gospel that Title IX was the single reason for the demise of the program and while it certainly was a factor, let’s remember it wasn’t the only issue at play. Simply put, 1991 was a vastly different time in college athletics and in Wisconsin athletics specifically.  

Younger fans probably don’t remember what it’s like to not have successful football or basketball programs and while I was just 10 years old at the time of this issue, my deep love for sports and Bucky was already rooted in me by this point so it’s not as if I don’t remember the process and arguments on both sides of the issue.

For you younger fans out there - imagine a time when Camp Randall wasn’t full every weekend or where the Badgers weren’t participants in the NCAA basketball tournament at all. Well, that’s what Wisconsin was facing at the point of the hiring of Badger legend Pat Richter as Athletic Director in 1989.  

Wisconsin was deeply in the red budget wise ($2.1 million annually in debt) and also facing a huge Title IX lawsuit that forced it to really look into the sports offerings in the department. I know it’s hard to believe, but the Badgers weren’t always successful on the field/court and making money on an annual basis.

That’s where this issue really stemmed from, not just Title IX. Sure, you can argue that if the Title IX lawsuit hadn’t been brought by those seeking a field hockey team that Wisconsin baseball may still have been around. However, that argument may never be proven one way or the other because of the bigger issue at hand for Wisconsin - THE BUDGET. 

Pat Richter was tasked with turning around a program in trouble financially as well as competitively and his biggest decision had to be to find a way for the department to become fiscally sound. Well in 1991 in an effort to help ease Title IX concerns as well as budget issues baseball was axed. But, it wasn’t the only sport gone as men’s and women’s fencing and gymnastics were also subject to the axe. If it was just about Title IX then why were women’s sports axed at all, right?

It’s a decision that Richter says was his most difficult to this day, having been a baseball star for Wisconsin alongside his days as a football hero for Bucky in the 1960’s. So, it’s not has if he took the decision to get rid of the program lightly.  

There’s also this perception of Title IX that persists to this day. Many believe that it’s all about proportionality and while in 1991 that was true, it’s not the case today - the details of which are for another article all together.

So what is today’s reality for Wisconsin?

The Badgers are operating under a budget that’s currently multi-millions of dollars in the black on an annual basis, they are no longer under constant Title IX scrutiny (were under a 12 year review period), and donor support is at an all time high.

Title IX itself isn’t just about proportionality anymore, there are actually three prongs to it and meeting one of the three means you are in compliance according to the Office of Civil Rights, which monitors the standards in all NCAA athletic departments.  

Of course the most obvious prong is the one we’ve been discussing - proportionality. All it means is that your athletic department must meet the same ratio of men to women as there are in the student body, in proportion, of course. So if there are 53% females to 47% males on campus that must be the same for your athletic department.  

According to a conversation with Wisconsin’s Senior Associate AD for Sports Administration, Terry Galwick, the Badgers are actually doing better in their ratio than what’s in the student population.  

On to prong two: Expansion - which means you must show that you are expanding opportunities for the underrepresented sex. That’s something the Badgers have done with the additions that include softball and Women’s hockey in the past decade or so. 

Prong Three? That’s meeting the interests of Women on campus. You can attempt to prove that even if you aren’t in proportionality or aren’t expanding that the athletic interests and abilities of the female student body are met. You can also prove that adding a certain sport may have undo hardships (i.e. no conference support for the sport or a lack of play/interest in your location for the sport).  

So, Title IX in 2012 is not the rigid, hard to define, and harder to meet standard that is was in 1991 when the decision to cut baseball was made.  

O.k., if Title IX isn’t as big a barrier what’s been holding Wisconsin back in the past?  Well, here are a few things that have been sited in the past:

  • Increasing demand on budget for scholarship dollars as it stands
  • Weather isn’t exactly great for spring baseball
  • You would have to add a Women’s sport if you add baseball
  • It doesn’t produce revenue for the Athletic Department
  • Other teams need improvements to facilities to stay competitive
  • Not enough fan support to sustain baseball

All of these are issues that can be addressed except the demand on the budget by scholarship dollars. The athletic department can’t control the cost of tuition for attending the university. But what it can do is increase the amount of scholarships that get endowment money to help offset the rising costs.  

Frankly, the other arguments sound more like excuses than anything else to me, so let’s explore them one at a time.

The weather? That’s an issue for all of the Big Ten baseball teams and any team in the northern half of the United States, yet teams like Notre Dame and now Stony Brook and Kent State have found ways to be successful. It’s simple, you play early season games o the road down south in tournaments or series or head out west. Thus avoiding the early season snow showers & bitter cold. Back in 1991 when the teams rarely traveled outside of the Midwest all season long.  It’s now commonplace to travel to the south or west for early season games.

What about the revenue issue? Really, what sport outside of football or men’s basketball actually produces revenue for the athletic department? At Wisconsin it’s hockey, but that’s it. Just three sports supporting the entire department, it’s not like that would change all that much by adding baseball, in fact do it right and you might see baseball be the closest of the rest to breaking even.

The fan support issue is a real one, but only because it’s been so long since a team has been at the varsity level for the Badgers. We’re talking about an entire generation growing up not knowing that baseball was ever played at Wisconsin. However, it’s always in the back of the Badger fan mind and perhaps “if you build it, they will come” will ring true for Bucky this time around.  

For me the biggest issue is adding a Women’s sport. While it’s true that Wisconsin is currently at a level above the proportionality level needed, it also must stay that way within it’s scholarship budget. Right now there are about 37-38 people on a baseball team on average in DI. Those numbers alone are enough to throw a monkey wrench in the scholarship levels. Without getting too into the weeds (lord knows I don’t want to bore you more than I was on this one), schools must also stay within proportionality in terms of it’s scholarships dollars to athletes and there can’t be a discrepancy of more than 1% on either side (men or women). It’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the basic gist of what needs to be taken in to consideration according to the OCR (Office of Civil Rights).

Anyway I’ve sliced it, Wisconsin would have to add another women’s sport and the most likely could well be Lacrosse where the numbers would be high enough (average of 22 team members) to even things out. It’s also a sport that wouldn’t add a huge burden to the budget, with average operating expenses of just about $45,000 dollars.  They also wouldn’t have to find a new place to play as the McClimon Complex is a good spot for their games. Finally, it’s a sport that’s almost a fully sponsored Big Ten sport. Currently four institutions have the sport (Northwestern, Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State) and should the Badgers add it that would make 5, just one short of being able to add it to the docket at the conference level.

So, we’ve addressed some major issues, but the biggest one is the funding of the program.  It’s not just the funding to the team, it’s the fact that they would need a facility built for them, one that I would argue needs to be centrally located on campus to attract the most amount of students and fans to attend games.  What does Wisconsin need to do to address this issue.

Well, there are a few things working in the favor of adding baseball in this area. One, it’s clear that donors are willing to open up their wallets, just look at the projects underway for other sports:

  • LaBahn Arena: $27.9 million - 2/3 of which came from gift money 
  • Golf Training Center: $2.5 million - all gift money
  • Goodman Softball Training Center - $2.3 million - all gift money
  • Student - Athlete Performance Center - $86 million - $37 million from gift money

Adding it all up and that’s about $58.5 million dollars from donors. That’s an amazing amount of money raised and I have a feeling there would be even more if Barry Alvarez simply stated the goal of bringing back the baseball team as long as we can find the funding to start the team up.  

From the college stadiums that have been built as of late the costs would be around $20-25 million and while that’s not chump change I have one person that could write that kind of a check tomorrow and would make perfect sense - Bud Selig. He was a former player and is an alumnus of Wisconsin and currently the commissioner of Major League Baseball. Something tells me he could be in the mood to help cultivate the game in the state that has given him so much.

It’s not all that uncommon, look at Penn State getting all the money needed for both Men’s and Women’s hockey, or even closer to home, the softball team. Why do you think they call it the Goodman Diamond? It’s because that family was kind enough to donate the money for the improvements needed to the former baseball field as well as the expenses of starting that program from scratch.  

Advertising dollars from stadium signage, concessions, and ticket sales from a 20 game home schedule should be more than enough to offset the operational costs of the team with that new stadium in place.

There’s also another major factor that we haven’t even touched on and it’s just three letters: BTN. Yep, the Big Ten Network. It’s reach is huge and in fact at the recent Big Ten presidents meeting it was talked about in terms of what it’s doing for the exposure of baseball for the conference. BTN is seen virtually nationwide and is the only one of the “networks” that is actually profitable to this point. In the spring baseball and softball are mainstays on the network and the exposure of playing on the network and the money that has added to the conference pot can be and has been put back into the sport.  

Lastly, it’s not as if the state of Wisconsin is devoid of Division I baseball talent.  It just isn’t known because they all have to go out of state to compete at the highest level (and yes I know UWM has a team).  2012 Big Ten rosters had 9 players on them from the state of Wisconsin (4-Minnesota, 2-Iowa, 1-Michigan State, 1-Purdue, 1-Ohio State).

In the end all signs point to the health and well being of the overall athletic department as being at their finest levels to date. With that it’s time for Wisconsin and Barry Alvarez to get serious about bringing back one of the oldest and most traditional of sports that Wisconsin has. We’ve laid out how to do it, but it’s up to the fans and those with the money to put the pressure on otherwise it will never happen. 

Andrew Coppens

About Andrew Coppens

Andy is a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA). He is the Managing Editor of MadTownBadger and associate editor of Bloguin's World Cup site, 32flags.com as well as Publisher of Big Ten site talking10.com