Warm weather has officially arrived here in Madison and spring has truly begun – or at least it appears here to stay. But with the warmer weather, bright sunshine, tanning bodies on Bascom Hill and iconic chairs returning to the Terrace, there is still a slight feeling that something is missing from all these hallmarks of the spring season. You might be asking yourself, “Come on Dan, what could possibly be missing right now”?
To give you a hint, it’s something all Big Ten schools have, except Wisconsin – although we did have it at one time. You may question me again, “How can we not have something that everyone else in the Big Ten possesses? Aren’t we supposed to be one of the premier institutions in our conference”?
ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt once claimed Madison as the best college sports town in America. Yet Madison lacks one thing crucial to sports and Americana itself – and no, it’s not apple pie.
Well, that one thing is our nation’s pastime: baseball.
It’s a game more than two million kids grow up playing starting at the Little League level, but a game which none have a chance to play at the college level as a Badger. UW has all other major sports, but it’s missing this final piece.
So why is Wisconsin the only one in the Big Ten without baseball?
The issue stems back a long time- all the way back 22 years ago in 1991. Times weren’t as rosy for the Wisconsin Athletic Department back then as they are now. Barry Alvarez had just completed his first season at the helm of the football team and finished with a dismal 1-10 record, good enough for last place in the Big Ten. Meanwhile, men’s basketball was battling through a mediocre 15-15 season and hadn’t won a Big Ten crown since the 1946-47 season.
The odd sport out was hockey, which had just won the fifth national championship in program history the year before baseball received the axe.
But even with hockey, the Athletic Department was not exactly raking in the money, operating at a $1.9 million budget deficit when the decision came to get rid of baseball.
It wasn’t just baseball that got the rug ripped out from right underneath it. Both men’s and women’s gymnastics and men’s and women’s fencing also received the bad news they would no longer be Division I programs when the UW Athletic Board voted 8-3 to get rid of all five programs. The state of Wisconsin was on the Athletic Department’s back about its deficit and so they felt there was no other option but to get rid of all five teams.
There is the idea that the move was strictly to deal with the enforcement of Title IX, which mandates that women receive equal opportunity and women’s sports had to have the same amount of funding as men’s sports. But the true underlying cause of the removal of baseball was almost strictly a monetary issue. Wisconsin couldn’t afford to support the sport and the state was not going to help do so either.
One men’s sport had to be removed to comply with Title IX, but that was only because the Athletic Department couldn’t afford to increase funding to add one for women. By cutting all five sports, Wisconsin would save $3.3 million over the course of four years and create a $500,000 reserve for the other remaining sports.
Keep in mind this was before three Rose Bowl wins by the football team, a Final Four appearance from the men’s basketball team and three subsequent Big Ten championships under Bo Ryan. Once there was money flowing into what has now become a cash-making machine in the UW Athletic Department, there was finally room for positive changes.
Unfortunately for the sports that were cut, they did not benefit. Instead, to balance the scales between men’s and women’s sports, changes were made by bringing in three new women’s sports. In 1995 women’s lightweight rowing became a Division I sport at UW, followed by softball in 1996 and women’s hockey in 1998.
Since those three sports were added over the course of four years, no other sports have been added to either the men’s or women’s side and the women have one more sport than the men with 13.
The reason for this is the sheer size of the football team. With more than 100 athletes, there needs to be more women’s sports to compensate. But with more than 800 student-athletes on campus and more of them women than men, perhaps it’s time for a men’s sport to be added back.
Not only is it possible from a numbers and balance standpoint with Title IX, but unlike 22 years ago there is money, and plenty of it, flowing into the pocket of the athletic department. This is clearly evident with all the recent facility updates. And now with almost everything up-to-date, there is room to look toward another UW sport in baseball.
The main problem with adding baseball is that no matter how successful the team can be, it will not produce money. So if it was added, the UW Athletic Department would take a loss in its annual budget.
But with how far UW Athletics have come since 1991, the best argument in quite some time can be made for the return of the sport to Wisconsin. Although the whole situation is quite complicated, the department is stable and capable of doing so. And it should do so because spring is nothing without baseball.