Lucas at Large: Hot tickets a cool development for Badgers

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Nebraska football fans are among the most passionate in the country.  Nobody knows that better than UW athletic director Barry Alvarez, a former Cornhuskers linebacker and grad assistant.

"Someone told me we've had a number of requests for season tickets from Nebraska people,'' Alvarez said. "Everywhere I go, I run into someone from Nebraska trying to find tickets for that game.''

That game, of course, is the Oct. 1 Big Ten opener between Nebraska and Wisconsin -- marking a baptism under fire for the Huskers, under the lights at Camp Randall Stadium.

Alvarez figures thousands of Nebraska fans will make the trip to Madison that weekend even if they don't have tickets for the game. "They will find ways to get in,'' he predicted.

Earlier this week, the UW put student football season tickets on sale for undergraduates and they were all gone in about 40 minutes; the 18th-consecutive year that the tickets have sold out.

That's a far cry from the early '90s when Alvarez, the UW football coach, had trouble giving away tickets to home games. To help fill the empty seats, he sent his graduate assistant coaches to every high school in the state that had a player on the roster in an attempt to drum up interest.

They were pitching buying a block of tickets in support of their hometown players.

That was standard operating procedure for Alvarez and his staff during those early years.

"Knowing the students were important, I assigned each of my assistants to a fraternity, a sorority and a dorm,'' he said. "Each coach was also responsible for talking to a dean on campus. While they learned more about our program and goals, we learned more about the system and academics.''

Such was the give-and-take.

Ironically enough, UW football coach Bret Bielema has also been reaching out to the students. Whereas Alvarez was trying to get them to show up, period, Bielema has been trying to get them to show up before the kickoff; or, at the very least, to show up before the end of the first quarter.

So much has changed over the last 20 years -- most notably the demand for tickets is far greater than it ever has been; especially for high-profile matchups like Nebraska versus Wisconsin. And that has created a seller's market -- which is still a better problem than having no market at all for your product.

Some history, no matter how ancient, is worth revisiting; particularly for perspective.

So we take you back to Alvarez' introductory press conference in 1990.

Here's how he saw it through his own eyes (as recounted in his autobiography).

One of the first questions I got was about the dwindling fan support for Badger football and all those empty seats at Camp Randall Stadium at the end of the Morton era.

"What do you tell those people who are maybe skeptical,'' I was asked, "about what's going to happen here?''

Now remember I was pretty damn cocky. We had won at Iowa. We had gone to six straight bowls and two Rose Bowls.

We had won at Notre Dame. We had been arguably the best team in college football over the last two seasons, winning 24 of our last 25 games.

When the question came up -- about building a fan base -- I couldn't help but think what (Bob) Devaney had done at Nebraska, too.

"People want good football in Wisconsin,'' I assured the audience. "And people have to be patient. They have to understand that things aren't going to change overnight.

"But let me say this - they better get season tickets right now because before long they won't be able to.''

That's what I thought. It wasn't a contrived statement or anything like that. I believed what I was saying. And I thought I had all the answers. But I had no idea how bad it was here.

But he made it better -- faster and better than anyone could have ever imagined. Alvarez and Bielema have made Badger football an even hotter ticket today.  Just don't ask the old Husker if he has any left for that Oct. 1 date with his alma mater.

His allotment has long since been spoken for.

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Nice that the student tickets are finally selling but sad that kids like mine will not be able to go to games during their freshman year. Not a smart long term strategy for building an alumni base.

ON WISCONSIN