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Why the Badgers expect a smaller crowd at Camp Randall despite being in the hunt for Big Ten title

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Tens of thousands of seats were empty during the University of Wisconsin’s football game against Northwestern last week at Camp Randall Stadium.

It was an 11 a.m. kickoff against a bad opponent on a chilly day late in the season, a recipe that led to 20,384 unscanned tickets, according to UW data provided to the State Journal. That figure dropped the announced attendance total — the number of tickets distributed to games plus workers and media — of 73,104 to 52,810 who actually attended the game.

UW is bracing for a sparse crowd this week when Nebraska comes to Camp Randall for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff despite the host being on a six-game winning streak and in the driver’s seat for the Big Ten Conference’s West Division title.

It’s the last home game of the season for the Badgers and they will honor their 23 seniors on the field with a pregame ceremony, but it’s also the opening weekend of Wisconsin’s gun deer hunting season, which drives down attendance. Coupled with the Cornhuskers’ struggles resulting in less fan support, the stands could be even emptier than last week.

“This weekend has traditionally been a tough weekend for us, no matter who we’re playing and no matter what the stakes are,” said Brian Lucas, UW’s director of football brand communications. “It’s hunting weekend and that’s built into the fabric of a lot of our fans, and we recognize that.”

Tickets for Nebraska games at Camp Randall Stadium have been among the best sellers for the Badgers since the Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten. The four UW-Nebraska games in Madison have averaged scanned attendances of 71,752. The 2011 UW-Nebraska game had the highest scanned ticket count, 75,971, since the State Journal began collecting this data in 2006.

But the program last week offered discounts of $20 off tickets to this season’s game in part because of the amount of unsold tickets. Lucas said Tuesday there were between 8,000 and 10,000 tickets available.

Opening gun-deer weekend has been particularly difficult for UW to draw fans, even when playing good competition. Home games on that weekend have averaged scanned-tickets attendances of 61,629 over the past 10 years despite playing No. 6 Ohio State (2012), No. 20 Northwestern (2015) and No. 19 Michigan (2017), according to UW records. That Northwestern matchup had the lowest scanned attendance at 51,205.

The Purdue game on opening gun-deer weekend in 2019 had 67,572 tickets distributed and 54,263 tickets scanned. Tickets on the secondary market were less than $10 the day of the game.

The Northwestern game had the highest number of no-shows this season, followed by the Oct. 16 night game against Army (15,385). UW has averaged 14,035 no-shows at home games this season, and that average was 12,766 before the Northwestern game.

UW isn’t alone in experiencing a drop in scanned tickets — it’s a reality of hosting sporting events during a pandemic. Seven NFL teams are reporting less than 90% capacity at home games after only three did in 2019, according to a Sportico report published earlier this month. That report cited ticket industry leaders in saying a 70% ticket scan rate was typical in college football pre-pandemic, but that rate has dropped this year.

Lucas said the program had an idea that stands wouldn’t be completely full this season, but it hasn’t diminished the experience of a game at the stadium.

“I’m not sure we truly knew what to expect this year,” Lucas said. “But we’ve been pleasantly — I don’t want to say surprised because what our fans do shouldn’t surprise us, because we’ve got great fan support — but the atmosphere and looks of the crowd have been really good.

“Do we want to sell out every game and have 80,000 of the best fans in the country at Camp Randall Stadium every week? Absolutely. But we realized we’re sort of in a new territory, especially at the beginning of this year, there were a lot of unknowns that people were dealing with.”

COVID concerns certainly kept some fans from attending games, but UW made other changes to the gameday procedure this year that fans had to adjust to, such as digital ticketing and cashless concessions.

Staffing shortages with Learfield Levy Foodservice, which operates UW’s concessions, resulted in a limited menu of concessions offerings as the stands tried to prioritize efficiency. Some stands have remained closed this season and fans have reported high wait times, which affects their ability to watch the game.

Lucas said times have gotten better later in the season in part because some of the nonprofit groups signing up to work on gamedays in exchange for a commission have come back. Gameday staffing isn’t back to 2019 levels, Lucas said, but is trending higher.

Lucas said the program will conduct fan surveys after the season to see what elements of the Camp Randall Stadium experience need to be addressed.

Future tickets for the renovated south end zone project — construction for which will begin later this month — are selling well, Lucas said, and the program has had 200 new season tickets purchased after they went on sale after the Purdue game.

“We have a great thing going at Camp Randall and our fans have been tremendous,” Lucas said. “We want to keep improving in whatever ways we can to deliver the best product for our fans, because, quite frankly, they deserve that for the tremendous support they give us.”

State Journal reporter Todd Milewski contributed to this story.


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