The University of Wisconsin-Madison is known for its successful sports programs. A basketball team competing for a national championship, an ever-contending, smashmouth football program and even nationally renowned men’s and women’s hockey teams, among others.
Yet, one program is all but forgotten on the Madison campus. Baseball, one of our nation’s most popular sports, was removed from the school's athletics program more than two decades ago, but now deserves reconsideration.
Due to serious budget concerns, Badger baseball was removed in 1991, along with four other sports. As Jesse Temple of Fox Sports Wisconsin describes, "The cuts helped eliminate a $1.9 million athletic department debt. Dropping the five sports would save $3.3 million over a four-year period [and] create a $500,000 reserve for other sports.”
Following eight years of abandonment, the sport was reborn on campus.
Now playing under club status, attention and popularity quickly grew among potential players. By the early 2000s, the club had enough members to create two separate teams. One now plays at a Division I level, while the other focuses more on Division II opponents.
Without the school's official backing, however, major struggles arise. Dan Corcoran of The Badger Herald writes, “There is no facility on campus dedicated to baseball, the team cycles through a carousel of practice fields throughout the area, including several in Madison and outlying suburbs. … With no field, home games turn into claiming whatever space is available to use for relatively cheap rental fees.”
Forget home field advantage; the Badgers just hope to have a field on which to play.
Games are certainly an issue, but even finding a practice venue has proven difficult. With on-campus facilities reserved for other programs, “The club baseball team resorts to non-traditional alternatives…hitting in batting cages and throwing off temporary mounds in space typically occupied by livestock.”
Aside from facilities, the much larger dilemma remains the athletic department's expenses. Just as it was in 1991, northern schools' Division I baseball programs do not typically make a profit. Instead, many create a giant hole in their respective athletics budgets.
Temple writes, "The Badgers also are the only Big Ten school without the sport.” This includes the recent additions of Maryland and Rutgers. Of the fourteen schools, 13 have baseball programs.
"There is little evidence to suggest the athletic department would make any money, leaving next to no incentive to restore the sport. ... In fact, four Big Ten programs lost more than $1 million on baseball the same school year: Indiana, Michigan ($1,445,925), Ohio State ($1,139,340) and Iowa ($1,009,227). Big Ten teams collectively lost $9.1 million on baseball."
Remember that the $1 million mark includes only one season's expenses. Apart from player scholarships, travel and other operating costs, UW would likely need to take into consideration additional fees associated with a new ballpark. As Temple explains, expenditures here can range from $7.2 million (Minnesota) to $19.2 million (Oregon).
Surprisingly, baseball has managed to survive elsewhere in Madison. The Madison Mallards of the Northwoods League (Independent) have a 14-year resume and continue to thrive.
Granted, differences in budget can be partially attributed to a difference in schedules. The Mallards’ season is entirely during the summer months, while the NCAA schedule typically runs from mid-February to late June. Half of the country is limited due to the cold winter temperatures, causing most northern programs to play almost a third of the season on the road in warmer states. If nothing else, the Mallards' existence proves that there is a market for the sport.
To provide some insight into the decision, UW athletic director Barry Alvarez sent a letter to Michael Hunt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Alvarez wrote, "While we agree baseball has a great history here in Madison and across the nation, we feel the current situation within our department does not allow us to reinstate a baseball program. While the department's financial status has improved significantly since that decision, the pressure to recruit the best athletes, have competitive athletic teams and offer student-athletes top-notch facilities and academic support remains increasingly demanding."
At what point does a school pay to provide additional opportunity to students? The $1 million mark is certainly significant. But if the deficit were significantly less, would UW be willing to support a program at a loss? According to Alvarez’s comments, one would speculate that it is much more than offering baseball, but that the program would need to be successful.
Aside from the obvious budget concerns, the apparent support is there from the players' standpoint.
The club is not only performing as two select teams, but it has proven to be extremely successful. Corcoran adds, "The passion for baseball hasn’t stopped the program from utilizing what limited resources it has, as the two teams have combined to reach the Club Baseball World Series in each of the past four years."
These are not players brought to Madison on a baseball scholarship. Instead, these students are required to pay a $50 membership fee each semester. They must travel across Madison simply to practice, sometimes resorting to farm fields. Badger baseball has truly become a model for the love of the game, but it deserves much better.