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Official Review by Sean Rowland, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
The world of NCAA volleyball offers a glimpse into arenas that time has passed by. As higher-grossing men’s basketball teams move into newer, glitzier facilities, women’s volleyball often takes permanent residence in the older arena. Penn State, Missouri, Ohio State and North Carolina are just a few of the schools to take that road and keep a perfectly fine (but older) facility alive. At Wisconsin, the same thing happened after basketball moved to the Kohl Center in 1998. Volleyball stayed behind, and the women’s team took over the Wisconsin Field House. Stadium and sports fans alike should be thankful for that decision as the 83-year-old building is a remarkable place to visit and admire how people used to view sports.
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Food offerings are pedestrian at best, though if you have a sweet tooth, the available options should more than cover that craving. Dessert items are highlighted by a Babcock Hall Ice Cream stand. The popular dairy store on UW's campus brings some of its goodies to the Field House and the freshly made ice cream ($5.00) is worth a try. The stand also offers root beer floats ($4.00) and malt cups ($3.00). Other sweets are available, as a decent amount of candy ($3.00 - $4.00) should keep kids and some adults happy.
Typical stadium food highlights the rest of the menu, with nothing more than the basics like hot dogs ($3.50), cheeseburgers ($5.00) and pizza ($4.00). The only Wisconsin staple is an average-tasting brat. Soft drinks are of the Coca-Cola variety and, like everything else, are a little pricey. I could only find large cups offered when I visited, and those were $4.50.
This is where the Field House excels. It all starts on the approach from the outside as you come up to this wonderful rectangular building with its sandstone brick façade and arched glass windows. While walking through the concourse, take notice of the older signs that point fans to the first balcony or second balcony. Inside is a blast from the past with an intimate design that puts everybody quite close to the court. The square-ish layout features a level that starts near the floor and extends back to the wall of the arena. The upper balcony seating overhangs the lower deck with beams holding up the structure. What is really interesting is at the back of the first level seats, where there are stairs that lead to the upper deck (relatively similar to Franklin Field at the University of Pennsylvania). I realize the hard bleachers and obstructing support beams don't make for an optimal viewing or comfort experience, but most fans likely will love the ambiance of this arena.
It does not get any better than Madison, as this is one of the top college towns to visit. Downtown Madison is only a few miles away, and the restaurants/bars to visit are endless. In the Capital Square section, The Old Fashioned and Great Dane Pub are just a few of the awesome places to check out. State Street connects downtown with the University of Wisconsin, and along the way are countless spots to grab a bite or drink. Perhaps the most popular is State Street Brats, a Badger tradition that features a Wisconsin food staple.
The Field House is actually attached to Camp Randall Stadium, and though the immediate neighborhood is not as hopping as other parts of Madison, there are still some good places. Just down the road is the Stadium Bar, which is a fairly standard place. Also close by is Mickies Dairy Bar, a breakfast joint that specializes in heaping portions and greasy food. This is certainly a local favorite. While in the vicinity, it is also worth walking around Camp Randall Stadium. The facility is on the grounds of a former Civil War training site. Several markers and displays honor the area. and the famous Camp Randall arch is worth a walk through as it is not far from the Field House.
Wisconsin athletics as a whole are supported very well, and that includes women's volleyball. Over the last decade, the Badgers have been top-five nationally in attendance, and the crowds reach large numbers when there is a big game. I was very impressed with the crowd that came out for the game I attended (announced attendance: 3,704), which took place on a Sunday afternoon when the Packers were playing. Many of the fans were families or teenage girls, and they created a pleasant atmosphere to watch the game. As is typical with college volleyball, they politely applauded the visiting team during their starting lineup introductions. Through the match, fans cheered after each home point and got on their feet as the Badgers reached set point.
Though the crowd on the surface may have seemed laid-back on the day I visited, there were plenty of die-hards there who were quite knowledgeable about how the Badger volleyball season was going thus far. A small pep-band kept the mood up and the building rocked a little bit after Wisconsin took each set. Along with the solid crowd support, the UW Field House atmosphere was pretty good.
Madison's unique location on an isthmus between two lakes means that interstate access is further out from the city. This is certainly a good thing, as the city's downtown was preserved, as opposed to many other urban areas that have an interstate running through them. This also means that local roads are used to get into the city. There are several directions from which fans may arrive. Most are straightforward, while others (primarily if you arrive from the north) can be tricky, as there are several one-way roads and odd intersections to navigate downtown. Once you arrive at the southeast part of campus where the arena sits, things are generally straightforward. Parking lots in front of the Field House hold most crowds. If this parking area gets full, there is a parking garage on the other side of the football stadium.
Ticket prices really made the visit worthwhile, as the game ticket was only $5. The team also ran a special $1 promotion to those that brought their ticket stub from the previous day's football game (which I did). The real concern was the high prices elsewhere for the event. Parking was $5, which is quite expensive when considering the price of a game cost the same as the price to park your car. Concession items were somewhat pricey too, especially considering that food and drink is not allowed to be brought in.
The Wisconsin Field House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a rare honor for a sports arena. Just outside of Gate D, a marker denotes the preservation and there is also an informative plaque on the architect of the building, Arthur Peabody.
Inside, amongst the red and white concourse walls are several sporting displays worth a look. Volleyball All-Americans take up a good amount of space on one side, with a nice display honoring those past players. Team captains and past coaches also have their own smaller plaques. I was particularly interested in the Boxing Wall of Fame, a sport in which Wisconsin was evidently a powerhouse when boxing was part of the NCAA in the mid 1900s.
A little on Wisconsin volleyball: The school competes in the very challenging Big Ten and though they have not made the NCAA tournament in more than a few years, this is a team that has seen some success. The Badgers have four conference titles and when they were making regular NCAA tournament appearances, Wisconsin reached the championship game in 2000.
Lastly, one more point for the fan interaction displayed by the players. Pre-game introductions include kids joining the players on court, first for high-fives and then to listen to the National Anthem. After the game, the band plays the school's alma mater "Varsity", with the team rejoining the fans right near the court for the song. There is a community feel with the whole experience at the Field House and that is maintained by the players.
*** Follow all of Sean's journeys at Stadium & Arena Visits.
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