Bringing Baseball Back
People rapidly approach the ticket sale windows while others patiently wait in a line that stretches past the sidewalk outside of the ballpark. Music begins to play as staff members grinning from ear-to-ear open the gates and welcome fans to their nine-inning vacation.
Little do some know, this scene was not a familiar one in Madison 19 years ago.
On June 2, 2001, Warner Park opened its gates as the Duck Pond for the first time after the Northwoods Collegiate Baseball League added another organization to the mix. The team was then purchased from the Northwoods League in March 2001 by business man, Steve Schmitt, who named the team the Madison Mallards and brought the green and gold to the North side of the capital.
"The commissioner of the Northwoods League called and asked what I thought about bringing a baseball team back to Madison," Schmitt said. "I am a huge baseball fan, I grew up playing the sport."
Although the Mallards have been competing at the Duck Pond for almost two decades, the journey of baseball at Warner Park dates back to 1982. The Mallards are the fourth team to call Warner Park home. It all started with the Madison Muskies, a Single-A Midwest League Oakland A's affiliate.
Warner Park was known as the "Fish Bowl" for the Muskies between 1982 and 1993. After fan attendance declined each season, the Muskies swam away from Madison and relocated to Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1994, becoming the West Michigan Whitecaps.
However, Warner Park did not remain empty for long.
The Muskies were quickly replaced by a St. Louis Cardinals affiliate, the Madison Hatters in 1994. The Hatters story is much shorter than the Muskies, as the team only lasted one year in Madison before relocating to Battle Creek, Michigan.
Warner Park was deserted after the Hatters departed, until 1996.
A third team, the Madison Black Wolf, took over the stadium as their "Wolf Den." The Black Wolf survived five years in the city before relocating to Lincoln, Nebraska after the 2000 season.
Since each team that attempted to occupy the ballpark failed, the city of Madison was deemed a non-baseball town and was said to have a lack of passion for the sport.
Steve Schmitt wanted to prove the former teams and the city residents wrong.
"I knew people who worked for the previous teams and they told me no one would want to come to Warner Park and that bringing baseball back to the city could not be done," Schmitt said. " I always say that you will never know unless you try, so that's what I did."
Today, most know the Mallards as an organization that successfully fills stands with thousands of fans every home game. Nonetheless, drawing in fans during the first few seasons was not easy.
Promotions in the early 2000's summers included letting people in for free if they were from certain cities of Wisconsin, or wearing a ball cap for a specific team.
"I could sit in the press box and count the number of fans in the stadium," Schmitt said. "We had less than two hundred fans in the beginning, I tried everything."
It was not until the stadium started to consistently grow more packed that tickets were of high demand and prices began to rise. Attendance started to pick up after each season, the Mallards began to average hundreds to a few thousands fans per game.
Now, the Mallards have achieved selling tickets that add up to a 6,000 fan crowd almost every game. Last year, the Mallards were named the team with best fan attendance in all of summer collegiate baseball by Ballpark Digest, after reeling in 218,712 total fans during the 2018 summer.
The credit for gaining the amount of fans goes to how the Mallards have crafted a unique experience that has been unmatched by any other summer collegiate league team in the country.
"We understand that not everyone at the park is a big baseball fan, so we wanted the experience to focus on entertainment as well," Vern Stenman, the Big Top Sports & Entertainment President said. "There are many people with different interests that come to the park so we wanted to reach all audiences."
Investing in the many different interests fans have lead to renovations around the park that attracted even bigger crowds.
In 2001 the Great Dane Duck Blind, a deck in right field designed to host private parties, was constructed and slowly added on to almost every year until a major renovation in 2017 occurred, demolishing the original structure. The renovation added three levels of suites, along with improved general admission areas.
The park also features a kids zone, general grandstand seats and the Tricor West Bend Club, which serves as an exclusive club for season ticket holders.
"We have different parts of the park that cater to the variety of fans that come to the games, since not everyone wants to experience the same thing," Vern said. "People who want to drink typically stay in or near the (Great Dane) Duck Blind, while families tend to stay together in the grandstand."
The time and money poured into the ballpark did not occur until the Mallards ownership took over.
A baseball operations employee of the Madison Hatters, Andy Milovich, praises the Mallards for being more inclusive, and believes it is the reason the ball club is booming.
"All along we felt that if the front office invested into the facility and the fan base, the Hatters could have worked out long term," Milovich said. "Baseball meant a lot to the few die hard fans in Madison, but nothing was going to evolve without investment."
After his brief stint in Madison, Milovich claims the community is not one to be blamed for the failure of the ball clubs that once took the field. Even after his one season at Warner Park, Milovich was convinced baseball fans do exist in Madison.
He says it is how the fans are incorporated into the Duck Pond experience that makes them want to return, including himself.
"You can't blame the community, only the amount of investment that is put into the organization," Milovich said. "It is now fun to go back to Warner Park and see how Vern and Steve's vision for baseball in the city has come to life, the customer service is like no place you will ever visit."
Residents of the city have had the opportunity to catch a baseball game at the Duck Pond for almost 20 years. Due to all of the hype behind the stadium renovations and ticket sales, the organization is often said to be comparable to a minor league team and rumors of the organization taking strides to operating at the next level have circulated.
Though, there may be continued growth for the stadium and fan base, Schmitt says he does not plan on the Mallards making a move anytime soon.
"I do not plan on the Mallards leaving the Northwoods League," Schmitt said. "I love this side of town, this is my home."
In their 19th season the Mallards have garnered ten playoff appearances, winning two league championships, one in 2004 and the other in 2013.
The level of attention and revenue may be huge for the team, but for Schmitt, none of those are topics of concern.
"It's all about the fans and their smiling faces when they are at the ballpark," Schmitt said. "That is what matters most to me and what is most important, making them happy."
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