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IN WISCONSIN, FANS HAVE A BARREL OF LAUGHS . . . : They Do Their Celebrating, Win or Lose

October 07, 1987|BOB OATES | Times Staff Writer

MADISON, Wis. — At a recent University of Wisconsin football game, the crowd was entertained in the fourth quarter by a troupe of high-kicking students in short red dresses.

Dancing around the edges of the field, the young women were accompanied, as usual, by 20 drummers from the university's marching band. Four drummers were kept in their seats, along with the 200 other Badger musicians, "in case of an emergency," band director Mike Leckrone said.

What emergency?

"We might score a touchdown," he said.

Fat chance. The Badgers aren't a big scoring team. In this century, they've won less than half the time--and it's an upset any year they win more often than they lose. "On, Wisconsin," indeed.

Across the state to the northeast, on the banks of the Fox River, the Green Bay Packers have in recent decades fared even worse. The Wisconsin element that prefers pro ball over college games has been continually frustrated by the football team that is based in one of the most famous small towns in America.

Except when the pros are on strike, defeat often visits the same weekend in Madison and Green Bay.

There are only two big-time football teams in the state and 1987 is an infamous anniversary season for both:

--It's been 19 years since the Packers put their last Super Bowl team on the field.

--It's been 25 years since the Badgers last played in the Rose Bowl.

This record of non-achievement is believed to be unsurpassed in football, at least in a state with a population of 4.8 million.

Accordingly, the crowds for the Badgers and Packers have dwindled away to almost nothing, right?

No, sir, that's dead wrong. At both Madison and Green Bay, football ticket sales are still booming.

Perversely, in this state, the more their teams lose, the more attention they seem to get.

Consider:

--At Madison, Badger football attendance has averaged 70,410 since 1970, although, in those 17 years, the Wisconsin team has had only 5 winning seasons. The average Badger crowd since 1974 in a stadium that seats 77,280 has been 72,017.

--At Green Bay, where Lambeau Field seats 57,091, the Packers have maintained a waiting list for season-ticket subscribers since the Vince Lombardi era. Although Packer teams have experienced only 4 winning seasons in the 20 years since Lombardi departed, the waiting list today is up to 9,000.

These things could never happen in Los Angeles. They couldn't even happen in football-mad Texas.

What's going on here? Why is there so much Wisconsin interest in football teams that lose so often?

There seem to be three ways to look at it:

Hope: Packer fans live on hopes and dreams.

"We know what it's like to win," John Wirch, a Green Bay paper company executive, said at a recent game.

"We've won more (National Football League) championships than any other team (11 in all). We expect to win again--so when you own a ticket priority here, you own a valuable commodity."

Year after year, Wirch and his friends cling to their season tickets--and customarily fill Green Bay's stadium.

Music: Badger fans live on the color and music of college football.

"It's the band that brings us together," said Peder Culver II of New London, Wis., referring to the university's marching band, which is mainly responsible for the unique holiday ambiance at Wisconsin games.

Purdue graduate Mary Jane Culver, alluding to the Badger band's creative postgame concerts, said: "At Madison, they always win the fifth quarter."

For thousands of Wisconsin students and alumni, the magnet is less the game than the fifth-quarter dancing in the aisles, or at their seats, to a 200-piece rock band.

Beer: Above all, football means parties at Madison and Green Bay. At both places, fall weekends are obviously for having fun.

Not that they don't enjoy themselves in Indiana, too--or Los Angeles, for that matter--but Wisconsin people seem to have a special talent for partying.

For instance, in 1985, the most recent year for which reports are available, Wisconsin folks drank 153,492,563 gallons of beer.

In a state that stands 16th in U.S. population, Wisconsin ranks third in beer consumption.

According to Beverage World, the industry magazine that makes the surveys, Americans consume a per capita average 24.2 gallons of beer annually. In Wisconsin, it's 32.9 gallons.

On the average, that includes every man, woman and child in the state, of course, although there is no evidence that the kids are holding up their end.

As for Wisconsin adults, they'd plainly rather drink at football games than in the kitchen.

They love to win football games, too. Winning is hardly despised in Wisconsin. But if they had to choose, some would really rather drink than win.

"UW is the place to go for a party," said a Madison-trained lawyer and Badger fan, James Lindgren, who noted also that his school excels academically.

Academicians, in fact, generally rank UW among America's top 10 universities.

Lindgren, choosing to emphasize the more important of these values, said: "(At Wisconsin), the drinking starts at 4 p.m. Fridays."

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