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Alvarez should be commended for spring game plan

February 22, 2011

Mark your calendars now. This year’s spring football game on April 23 is a can’t-miss event for any Wisconsin fan.

Already a popular event each year, the 2011 version of the spring game promises to be better than ever, especially considering the anticipated competition at quarterback. Credit the philanthropic thinking of UW athletic director Barry Alvarez and head football coach Bret Bielema for the improvement.

For the first time, the UW Athletic Department will charge admission to the event, something Alvarez and Bielema have discussed doing for years. The cost will be $5 per ticket, with all proceeds going to the University of Wisconsin School of Nursing.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for the School of Nursing,” said Katharyn May, dean of the School of Nursing. “Fundraising right now is a tough sell, and the nursing school has been working on raising sufficient funding to build a new home for more than a decade.

“The state of Wisconsin needs this nursing school to grow. We’re one of the best in the country, but we do not have any more room. We can’t put any more students in any more classes because we don’t have seats for them.”

Alvarez announced the ticketing plan Monday afternoon at Wisconsin’s weekly head coaches press conference. In doing so, he also shared a couple stories about how the idea came about.

During his time at Iowa under legendary head coach Hayden Fry, the Hawkeyes annual spring game featured free admission, much like its Wisconsin counterpart has for years. Despite no cost, attendance at the event remained low.

But Fry had an idea to get more fans to show up.

“I can remember Hayden saying, ‘You know, if it’s free, people think there’s no value in it. If you just charge $2, we’ll increase the crowd,’” Alvarez said. “Sure enough, that’s what happened.”

Last spring, Iowa drew 23,502 fans for its annual scrimmage, compared to the crowd of 23,567 that watched the Cardinal squad defeat the White, 25-3, at Camp Randall Stadium on the same sunny afternoon. But those numbers still put Wisconsin well behind the leaders nationally, which include a couple Big Ten rivals.

At Nebraska, the 2010 Red-White game was watched by 77,936 fans. In Columbus, despite poor weather, the Buckeyes drew a crowd of 65,223 at Ohio Stadium.

Football is by far the most popular sport in the United States, and the growing attendance for spring football games — which mean precious little in the grand scheme of things — is the perfect example of such popularity. With tickets being in such high demand, it should come as no surprise that so many schools now charge for these annual intrasquad contests.

What is remarkable, however, is the decision of the UW Athletic Department to charge admission without keeping any of the proceeds for itself.

“This is about us being a part of the campus and us supporting campus,” Alvarez said. “We try to be good partners. We get great cooperation on campus, and this is one way for us to give back and say ‘Thank you,’ and also support the campus.”

Now you may be wondering how Alvarez and Bielema decided the game would benefit the School of Nursing, considering how many other programs on campus could be equally deserving. As it turns out, it was a matter of excellent timing.

On the very same day that the two had decided to charge admission and contribute the proceeds to one of the departments at the University of Wisconsin, the School of Nursing held an event with Alvarez in attendance.

In talking with May and a number of others in the nursing program, Alvarez learned of their excitement regarding a capital project that would provide a new home for the School of Nursing and allow it to increase enrollment by 30 percent.

“One of them said to me, ‘So what are you going to do for us, coach?’” Alvarez recalled. “And I said, ‘You know what, I’ve got something for you.’ And so we shared with them what our plan was, (and) they became very excited about it. I think it will be a win-win situation for them and also for us.”

Coming off their most successful season in more than a decade, which saw the Badgers go to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2000, it would be safe to assume the annual spring game would see a jump in attendance. Even with a cost of $5 for admission, Wisconsin could expect its biggest crowd yet for the Cardinal-White scrimmage.

That being the case, it also would have been easy for Alvarez to charge the money and take the proceeds for the Athletic Department, which could use some added revenue to keep up with the other major Division I programs in the nation.

Instead, Alvarez and Bielema saw the opportunity to do something bigger than themselves with the spring game. In allowing the School of Nursing to run the event and collect the proceeds, the football program will have a direct hand in furthering the education of some of the university’s best and brightest students, including a number of its athletes.

Despite being in the midst of the greatest nursing shortage in recent history, the School of Nursing has been forced to turn away three students for every one admitted, making it the most competitive program on campus. With the added fundraising now available through the spring football game, enrollment could increase within two years.

If everything goes according to plan, with high attendance at the spring football game and additional funding from the state of Wisconsin, the School of Nursing hopes to break ground this fall, with the new building to open by Fall 2013.

Just how close are they to the necessary funding?

“Within striking distance,” May said. “My job is (to get) $17.3 million, and we are at 13.3 right now. … Nurses do not grow up to become wealthy people by and large, so we are relying on powerful people like Coach Alvarez to help us get the word out.”

Well, now that the word is out, it’s up to Wisconsin fans to come through and uphold their end of the bargain.

Can you spare $5 to support the School of Nursing while spending a beautiful spring afternoon watching a football game with thousands of your closest friends?

If you can, I’ll see you there.

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